Ecuadorian Government, Indians Sign Accord

Quito - Indian protesters were heading back to their communities triumphant Wednesday after securing a hard-fought deal in which the government backed down on a number of tough economic measures.

President Gustavo Noboa and the Indian leaders signed the 23-point agreement at 2:00 pm (1900 GMT) during a 90-minute meeting at the presidential Carondolet Palace, ending nearly 10 days of protests.

"Long live Indian unity," "We won! We won!" shouted groups of indigenous Ecuadorians as they made their way through the streets of Quito upon leaving the Salesian Polytechnic University where as many of 6,000 of them had staged a sit-in.

Nationwide, the protests left three dead and 80 people injured from bullet wounds and/or tear gas, according to Red Cross figures.

The worst of the clashes with troops occurred Monday, three days after Noboa decreed a nationwide state of emergency allowing the army and police to use force to re-establish order.

While protesters blocked roads in parts of the country, more than 40 Indians in the capital launched a hunger-strike in response to the emergency decree Friday.

The Indians sought a reverse of Noboa's stringent economic measures, including 100 percent domestic fuel price increases, plus a 75 percent hiken in public transportation tariffs.

Wednesday's breakthrough saw a 20 percent reduction in the price of gas for domestic use, from two dollars to 1.60 per 15 kilogram tank. The price of other fuels is to be frozen for a year, except for higher-grade (super) gasoline.

Indigenous communities and low-income Ecuadorians are to benefit from the lower gas price while the government implements a distribution network to guarantee them the fuel under those conditions, at the request of the Indians.

They failed, however, to secure their demand that gas be reduced to 1.50, and that general fuel tariffs remain unchanged for two years.

Shortly after noon Wednesday, CONAIE president Antonio Vargas, led a delegation of 80 Indians – representing all of Ecuador's 12 Indian communities with a total population of four million – to the historic signing.

Presidential spokesman Alfredo Negrete had angered the Indians late Tuesday by saying the government had reached the end of proposals, as the Indians expressed a will to seek closer consensus on their demands through Wednesday. Indigenous Ecuadorians have born the brunt of economic hard times in Ecuador.

Just over a year ago, former president Jamil Mahuad was ousted in the wake of a similar indigenous "popular uprising," in a non-violent coup.

The new deal will also benefit them by boosting capital to the state-owned Banco Nacional de Fomento and the National Finance Corporation, in order to offer special credits for small and mid-sized producers.

The government has also agreed not to permit neighboring Colombia's 7.5 billion-dollar peace and anti-drug initiative known as "Plan Colombia" to be regionalized to Ecuador, nor to involve the nation in foreign conflicts.

Shortly before the landmark meeting, students clashed with police in northern Quito, throwing home-made explosives and rocks near the Central University, as other demonstrators gathered outside the downtown Social Security offices.

However, a general strike Wednesday organized by the leftist Popular Front (FP) and trade unions failed to win the support expected. Sectors including the key oil production and distribution industry announced they would back the strike. School and university classes were already canceled, meanwhile, at the start of protests January 29. Barricades erected on roads throughout the country, including the strategic Pan American Highway, have cost the country 50 million dollars in lost export earnings, according to the Ecuadorian Federation of Exporters.

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