Ecuador's president charged Friday that the Indigenous leader heading a nationwide strike is seeking to stage a coup and warned he will use all legal tools to contain the violence unleashed by the demonstrations.
In televised remarks, President Guillermo Lasso said Leonidas Iza, leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, intends to "overthrow the government." But Lasso added that he was willing to engage in talks on ending protests that were in their 13th day.
"It is proven that the true intention of the violent (people) is to generate a coup and that is why we call on the international community to warn of this attempt to destabilize democracy in Ecuador," Lasso said. "... Mr. Iza can no longer control the situation. The violence perpetrated by infiltrated criminals has got out of hand."
The demonstrations are part of a national strike that the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities began June 14 to demand that gasoline prices be cut by 45 cents a gallon to USD 2.10, price controls be imposed on agricultural products and a larger budget be set for education. Protests have been especially violent in six provinces in the north-central part of the South American country.
The confederation on Thursday said a demonstrator died of pellet wounds in the chest and abdomen while protesting near the National Assembly in Quito, where about 100 other people suffered a variety of injuries. Police tweeted that officers were also injured by pellets.
Marlon Santi, the coordinator of the confederation's political wing known as Pachaktik, demanded in a video on social media that the government meet the Indigenous demands because "we are convinced this is the spirit of our struggle."
He called on protesters to return to places of peace and safety so as not to "put their lives in danger. They have the power, the power of arms and economic power; we have the power of reason and dignity."
Lawmakers from the Union por la Esperanza caucus, which is linked to former President Rafael Correa, on Friday began a legislative process seeking Lasso's removal, but it does not have the necessary votes as other caucuses have rejected the move. It would take the votes of at least 92 lawmakers to remove Lasso, while Union has only 47 seats.
In Quito, protesters blocking roads have brought the city to a near halt and people are experiencing food and fuel shortages. Production Minister Julio José Prado said nearly 600 private vehicles and food-carrying trucks are trapped in Nanegalito, a community about 65 kilometers northwest of Quito.
Groups of protesters have roamed the city attacking vehicles and civilians and forcing the closure of businesses, some of which were looted. They have also punctured the tires of buses, forcing passengers to walk.
Lasso urged Indigenous people and peasants "who have been brought to Quito with deception" to return to their communities for their own safety. He added that human rights groups should scrutinize the situation, which he said has violated the rights of security forces, citizens and journalists.
Human Rights International said four of its staff members were physically attacked and robbed Thursday while "carrying out research and verification work on the protests" in Quito.
"We reject these actions, and we call for dialogue," the group tweeted.
The situation prompted several embassies, including those of Germany, Britain, Canada and the US, to issue a public statement expressing concerns about “the fundamental rights of all citizens." It called for the parties to negotiate and reach "concrete agreements."
The US State Department issued an advisory Wednesday warning travellers about the widespread protests.