President orders army onto streets of Ecuadorian capital
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador’s army took to the streets after President Lenín Moreno ordered the first 24-hour curfew in decades in response to a day of attacks on government buildings and media offices.
By Saturday night, soldiers had retaken control of the park and streets leading to the National Assembly and the national comptroller’s office, which had been broken into by protesters who lit fires inside the building.
Moreno said the military would enforce the round the clock curfew in Quito and around critical infrastructure like power stations and hospitals in response to the day’s violence. It was the first such action imposed since a series of coups in the 1960s and ’70s.
“We are going to restore order in all of Ecuador,” Moreno said.
Late Saturday night, Moreno announced some possible concessions in an economic package that was opposed by many Ecuadorians. But he didn’t retract his decision to remove fuel subsidies, a step that triggered the nationwide protests and clashes.
Moreno said his government would address some concerns of protesters, studying ways to ensure resources reach rural areas and offering compensation for those who lost earnings because of the recent upheaval.
“We’ll negotiate with those who have decided to do so,” Moreno said in remarks broadcast on radio and television. “The process is moving forward and I hope to give you good news soon, because different organizations and sectors have confirmed their willingness to talk.”
For many in Ecuador, which had become one of the safest and most stable countries in the region, the day’s violence was a terrifying shock.
“Quito had a very hard day, of much tension and fear for its citizens,” Interior Minister María Paula Romo said. “What we saw today we haven’t seen before.”
About two hours after the comptroller’s office was attacked, a group of several dozen masked men swarmed the offices of the private Teleamazonas television station in northern Quito, set fires on the grounds and tried to break into the building where about 20 employees were trapped.
The offices of the newspaper El Comercio in southern Quito were also attacked, with the building’s security guards were seized and briefly bound before police arrived and drove off the assailants. Police also halted the attack on Teleamazonas.
Following hours of chaos, Moreno appeared on national television alongside his vice president and defense minister to announce that he was ordering people indoors and the army onto the streets.
Moreno said the masked protesters had nothing to do with the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians who have protested for more than a week over a sudden rise in fuel prices as part of an International Monetary Fund-backed austerity package. He blamed the violence on drug traffickers, organized crime and followers of former President Rafael Correa, who has denied allegations he is trying to topple Moreno’s government.
Moreno served Correa as vice president before he become president and the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch.
The violence and military deployment closely followed the announcement of a possible softening of Ecuador’s 10-day standoff. Indigenous leaders of the fuel price protests that have paralyzed Ecuador’s economy said they were willing to negotiate with Moreno.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador said it would negotiate with the government but also protest in the streets. Leonidas Iza, a Quechua leader from mountainous Cotopaxi province, appeared to back Moreno’s curfew, asking the armed forces to “guarantee peace and bring back the constitutional order.”
Iza said the indigenous movement rejected “certain groups’ intentions to take advantage of the Ecuadorian indigenous people’s movement.” He did not offer details.
Across the capital throughout the day, hooded men used rocks and burning tires to block streets. Some drivers, pedestrians and owners of small businesses reported being threatened and robbed.
Romo, the interior minister, said 30 people were arrested in the attack on the auditor’s office. Firefighters said they extinguished the blaze in the building, which houses evidence in corruption investigations.
By nightfall, Quito residents were hanging out their windows and banging pots and pans, in what many said was a protest against the day’s chaos and a call for stability.
In an unexplained episode, opposition legislator Gabriela Rivadeneira, a close ally of Correa, entered the Mexican embassy, which said it had provided her “safety and protection.”
Ecuadorian officials said she had no pending charges or reason to seek political asylum.
Ecuador, a former OPEC member, was left deeply in debt by a decade of high-spending governance and the oil price drop. Moreno is raising taxes, liberalizing labor laws and cutting public spending in order to win more than $4 billion in emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund.
As part of that plan, Moreno eliminated a subsidy on the price of fuel on Oct. 2, driving the most popular variety of gasoline from $1.85 to $2.39 a gallon and diesel from $1.03 to $2.30. Panic and speculation sent prices soaring, with costs of some products doubling or more.
Ecuador’s indigenous people, poor and underserved by government programs, were infuriated. Over the last week, thousands of streamed into Quito from the Amazon rainforest and the Ecuadorian Andes.
The standoff halted Ecuador’s oil production, blocked highways and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in loss to industries such as flower-growing to dairy farming.
An indigenous leader and four other people have died during the unrest, according to the public defender’s office. The president’s office has reported two deaths.
Correspondent Raisa Ávila contributed to this report.