General strike as thousands protest Colombia's govt

General strike as thousands protest Colombia's govt

University students clash with members of the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD), during a nationwide strike called by students, unions and indigenous groups to protest against the government of Colombia's President Ivan Duque in Medellin, Colombia. (AFP Photo)

Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of the capital Bogota on Thursday amid a general strike to protest the policies of President Ivan Duque's right-wing government.

There were reports of clashes and arrests as trade unions, students, opposition parties and the South American country's indigenous organisations challenged the full gamut of Duque's economic, social and security policies.

"It is an accumulation of situations that we hope to see reviewed after today, including a great national dialogue of conciliation," Robert Gomez, president of the main workers' union, told AFP.

The protest comes amid social upheaval across South America, as a wave of unrest over the past two months has battered governments in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The popularity of Duque's right-wing government -- a key US ally -- has been on the wane since his election 18 months ago, as it deals with hosting 1.4 million refugees from neighbouring Venezuela's economic meltdown as well as the complex fallout of a 2016 peace deal with FARC rebels and rampant drug trafficking.

Troops were deployed in the capital and other cities to protect "strategic facilities," authorities said.

The Colombian office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced concern over the deployment, saying states must limit the use of military forces "for the control of internal disturbances." Spokesmen for several organisations backing the protests said more than one million people had marched nationwide, while Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutierrez counted some 207,000 protesters by the middle of the afternoon.

While authorities said the protests were largely peaceful, eight people were arrested in various cities, the interior ministry said.

Isolated clashes in Bogota and the western city of Cali injured seven protesters and 28 policemen. Blocked roads in some areas snarled transportation, and the mayor of Cali declared a curfew from 7:00 pm (0100 GMT).

The general strike was widely followed in big cities like Bucaramanga in the northeast and Medellin in the northwest, along with Bogota where riot police used stun grenades to turn back thousands of students walking towards the international airport, an AFP journalist said.

Several separate marches converged on Bolivar Square, the historic center of the capital close to the presidency.

"We are marching because in Colombia we are tired of corruption, of impunity, that the government does nothing for the poor," Olga Canon, 55, told AFP.

By the end of the afternoon, most of the protesters had dispersed though some activists called for continued mobilization.

Organisations that participated in the strike take issue with Duque's security policy as well as attempts to introduce a more flexible labour market, weaken public pension funds and raise the retirement age.

Students are demanding more funding for education, while indigenous communities insist on greater protection in remote areas where 134 activists have been killed since Duque came to power in August 2018.

"We are very afraid to march in the streets but we do it anyway because the state is spreading so much fear with its militarization and by closing the borders," political science student Valentina Gaitan, 21, told AFP.

Duque admitted some of the criticisms were legitimate in a televised speech on the eve of the strike but said the campaign against his government was based on lies seeking to provoke violence.

"We recognize the value of peaceful protests, but also guarantee order," he said. The borders with Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela were closed until Friday to avoid any threat to "public order and security," authorities said.

Political analyst Jason Marczak said the outrage against the government, the target of several demonstrations in recent months, is part of a "considerable demonstration of discontent in the region." "The unsatisfied claims and deep polarization are the basis for this massive event," said Marczak, of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. 

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