Ecuador protests devolve into hostage standoff

The Ecuadorean indigenous group behind weeklong and increasingly violent protests on Thursday confirmed that it was holding police officers hostage and said it would “radicalize” its actions until the government reinstates fuel subsidies and fires the ministers of defense and interior.

It also accused the government of killing at least two of its members amid escalating tensions in the South American nation.

The combative stance comes as the Lenín Moreno administration is trying to reassure a jittery nation that it’s firmly in control and that the protests are being quelled.

In a national address, José Agusto Briones, the presidential chief of staff, accused the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) of holding six police officers and 27 reporters hostage inside the capital’s cultural center.

The CONAIE confirmed that they had detained police officials and said they would respect their “human, physical and psychological rights.”

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The standoff comes amid nationwide protests that erupted after Moreno, 66, canceled fuel subsidies last week as he pursues a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Moreno has said the subsidies were costing the country $1.4 billion a year and were largely benefiting gangs that smuggled the fuel into neighboring Peru and Colombia. The government has repeatedly said that reinstating those subsidies isn’t negotiable.

However, it has offered to use some of the savings to create focused aid programs for the country’s neediest.

But the protesters say the price hikes will have dramatic ripple effects through the economy, raising the cost of transportation and food at a time when many are suffering amid an economic downturn.

Demonstrations began in earnest on Monday and the CONAIE led a national strike on Wednesday that paralyzed much of the country.

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Amid the chaos and violence, Moreno moved the seat of government to the coastal city of Guayaquil and has been calling for dialogue.

On Thursday, however, the CONAIE said it wouldn’t consider talks with a “murderous government until our minimum requirements are met.”

Along with reinstating fuel subsidies, the organization is asking for the firing of Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín and Interior Minister María Paula Romo.

“We have tears of rage, but if we have learned something … it’s that we can honor our dead in combat by multiplying ourselves,” the CONAIE said in a statement. “The dialogue that Lenín Morneo is suggesting is a sham.”

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday issued a travel warning that covers most of the country, including the capital, Quito, and Guayaquil due to the civil unrest. Embassy staff have been restricted from traveling between cities and provinces “until further notice.” The travel restrictions do not apply to Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands — the crown jewel of its tourism industry.