Troops deploy to restore order in protest-hit Colombia
08/30/2013 17:54 GMT
by Lissy DE ABREU
BOGOTA, August 30, 2013 (AFP) - President Juan Manuel Santos ordered troops on to the streets of Bogota as well as Colombia's highways on Friday, after violent protests in support of striking farmworkers left two dead.
Within hours, leaders of farm workers in a key province near Bogota began calling on their followers to lift roadblocks around the country, saying in a statement they had reached "partial agreements" with the government.
They provided no details on the agreements, and it was unclear whether the appeal would be heeded. Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said the move was a "gesture of goodwill."
The apparent break came after Santos took a hard line with the protesters, deploying soldiers after a night of violent clashes in Bogota saw two people killed.
"Last night, I ordered the militarization of Bogota and I will do the same today in any municipality or area that needs the presence of our soldiers," he said in a speech broadcast on radio and television.
Santos said he had ordered the deployment of up to 50,000 troops on the nation's highways,which have been targeted with protests and blockages by striking farmworkers since August 19.
The demonstrations in Bogota marked the first time that the farmworkers' rural protests had spread to the capital and other cities.
The clashes were reported to have left 147 people injured and 40 under arrest. Santos' defense minister on Thursday accused leftist FARC guerrillas of infiltrating the marches to sow violence.
The Colombian president, however, made no mention of the FARC, with whom his government is holding peace talks in Havana, instead blaming a leftist group called Patriotic March.
"The Patriotic March movement only seeks to take us to a situation with no way out to impose its own agenda. It doesn't care at all about the farmworkers," he said.
"I have said you're welcome to protest, but not protests at gunpoint or with threats," he said.
A spokesman for the Bogota mayor's office said soldiers would patrol the city "in coordination with the police."
Santos said the military would work with the police nationwide "to help with the mobility of our highways."
The air force was ordered to make its fleet of transport planes available to fly food and other essentials into the capital if necessary, he said.
Farmers, hit by rising costs and competition from imports, are demanding increased agricultural subsidies and other relief.
Miners, truck drivers, students and workers have joined the protests, each with their own set of grievances.
On Thursday, Santos acknowledged that farmers have been facing hard times, and promised price controls on fertilizer and pesticides.
But in his speech Friday, the Colombian leader said he had recalled his government's representatives from negotiations that had been under way with protest leaders in the city of Tunja, 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Bogota.
"We maintain all our willingness to dialogue with the real farmworkers," he said.
A key complaint is that farmers cannot compete with cheap US and European imports allowed under free trade agreements entered into by Colombia.
The government "does not want to touch the FTAs with the United States and the European Union; and those people have subsidies, low production costs and high technology, and we can't compete with that," said Cesar Pachon, a spokesman for the farmworkers.
"What we are looking for is a guarantee that we will be able to survive as farmers," he said.
Over the past 12 days, protesters have blocked traffic on major highways leading to Bogota, disrupting the flow of foodstuffs to the city.
Before the latest fatalities, five people had died in a variety of incidents during the road closures.
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