Ecuador’s president temporarily moves seat of government amid protests in the capital

Ecuador’s government said on Tuesday it would be open to mediation via the United Nations or the Catholic Church, after almost a week of anti-austerity protests that have rocked the nation and brought hundreds of arrests.

Thousands of indigenous demonstrators converged on the highland capital, Quito, and were planning to march on the heavily guarded presidential palace.

Facing the biggest challenge to his 2½-year rule, President Lenin Moreno has declared a state of emergency and moved government operations to the coastal city of Guayaquil where there has been less trouble.

“The only response is dialogue and firmness at the same time,” presidency secretary Juan Roldan told local radio, saying authorities were open to help from the United Nations, the Catholic Church or university rectors.

Soldiers walk near burning barricades during protests against austerity measures of Moreno’s government, in Duran on Monday night. (Santiago Arcos/Reuters)

The number of arrests had risen to 570, he said.

Protests erupted last Thursday when the government cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of economic reforms in keeping with a $4.2-billion US International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

‘They want to turn Ecuador into Venezuela’

Indigenous groups and others have been barricading roads with burning tires, rocks and branches, while police have deployed armoured vehicles and tear gas in response.

Among those detained were a Congress member who supports Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa, said Roldan.

Moreno has accused the leftist Correa — his former mentor and boss when he was vice-president — of seeking a coup with the help of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“They want to turn Ecuador into Venezuela,” Roldan said.

Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule, but broke with him after winning a 2017 election to succeed him and moved economic policies to the right.

Moreno, left, and predecessor Rafael Correa are shown on May 24, 2017. The relationship has deteriorated since then, with Moreno accusing the exiled Correa of plotting a coup, an accusation the ex-president has angrily denied. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

Speaking in Belgium, where he lives in self-exile, Correa told Reuters the accusation against him was nonsense.

“They are such liars … They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests,” he said, holding up his mobile telephone.

“People couldn’t take it anymore, that’s the reality,” he said, referring to the belt-tightening economic measures.

Maduro has yet to respond to the accusation of Venezuelan involvement in Ecuador.

With protesters swarming around Quito, various government buildings were attacked overnight, authorities said.