Ecuador, Indians to Cease Protests

Quito, Ecuador - Indian leaders met with Ecuador's president Wednesday and agreed to call off violent protests against government-ordered bus fare hikes and fuel subsidy cuts.

Hundreds of Indians danced and sang in the streets surrounding Salesiana Polytechnic University near downtown Quito to celebrate. About 4,000 Indians have occupied the university for more than a week.

In exchange for a halt to the protests, the government agreed to freeze gasoline prices for one year and cut the cost of a 30-pound tank of cooking fuel by 40 cents to $1.60. The government also agreed to cheaper public transport fares for children, students and elderly people.

President Gustavo Noboa and Antonio Vargas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, Ecuador's largest Indian movement, signed a 23-point agreement at a Government Palace ceremony.

Noboa also said he would lift a state of emergency he declared Friday and added that Indian leaders and protesters detained by security forces during more than a week of violent demonstrations would be released.

The Indians went back to the bargaining table with the government on Tuesday and refused to participate Wednesday in a 24-hour national strike called by leftist-led unions and student groups.

Before the deal was signed, police used tear gas to disperse some 300 students who set tires ablaze in the streets surrounding Quito's state-run Central University. Small marches by unionized laborers and hospital workers also took place in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil, but overall turnout for the strike was minimal.

Last month, Noboa doubled the price of home cooking gas, increased gasoline prices 25 percent and hiked public bus fares by as much as 75 percent as part of an austerity package demanded by the International Monetary Fund (news - web sites) as a condition for a $2 billion loan.

The moves prompted the Indians to march into Quito late last month, and to blockade provincial highways throughout the country. On Monday, four civilians were killed in clashes.

Ecuador's Indians make up about a third of the country's population of 12 million, and are among the nation's most impoverished people.

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