Indians protest in Ecuador against mining projects

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By GONZALO SOLANO, Associated Press

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — More than 1,000 indigenous protesters reached Ecuador's capital Thursday after a two-week march from the Amazon to oppose plans for large-scale mining on their lands.

The protesters were joined by thousands of anti-government protesters in Quito, and some of the demonstrators clashed with police outside the National Assembly. Police repelled rock-throwing young men using tear gas and charging at the demonstrators on horseback.

Police said at least four officers suffered minor injuries in the violence.

The indigenous protesters were joined by students, activists and government opponents who criticized President Rafael Correa for signing off on plans for mining projects including open pit mines that are to extract copper and other minerals from the traditional lands of the Shuar Indians in southern Ecuador.

Thousands of Correa's supporters gathered in parks and plazas for a counter-demonstration to show their support for the government's policies, some of them in front of the president's palace.

Correa's supporters chanted: "The coup-plotters won't pass! They'll bump into the people!"

The leftist president addressed a crowd of supporters at a park, saying the government is willing to talk with indigenous leaders despite the disagreements.

"We've told them: They want to talk, perfect, but with the good-intentioned, good people. For that, they don't need marches. We're always open to dialogue," Correa said. He called the protesters "counterrevolutionaries."

"If they want to beat us, they should do it in elections," Correa said in a radio interview.

The president said the government took measures to ensure security and the right of his opponents to protest peacefully. Hundreds of police officers stood watch at both demonstrations.

"But if there is an act of violence... clearly it will be from infiltrated opposition groups," Correa said, adding that he thought the indigenous protesters had failed to rally much of a crowd.

Correa, whose spending on social programs has helped boost his approval ratings above 70 percent, has supported large-scale mining projects saying they represent a financial boon for the country.

The march was organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country's indigenous umbrella group.

Delfin Tenesaca, one of the group's leaders, said that if the president is truly willing to have a dialogue, he should receive the protesters. "He should also eliminate all mining contracts in order to respect the constitution, which prohibits all types of mining in parks, ecological reserves and water sources," Tenesaca said.

The indigenous group's president, Humberto Cholango, told reporters: "We want peace and no more insults by the president."

"We want Ecuador to know that there are people here who are willing to question and tell the president his mistakes," Cholango told the Ecuadorean television channel Ecuavisa.

The protest march began on March 8 in the Amazon town of El Pangui, about 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Quito. The marchers took a winding route, hiking about 700 kilometers (435 miles) to reach the capital.

Near the starting point of the march, the government has authorized open pit mines. Under a contract signed by the president this month, Chinese-owned Ecuacorriente will begin stripping copper as early as next year from a hillside in Shuar country whose reserves are estimated at 2.1 billion kilograms (4.7 billion pounds).

The Indians hold title to their traditional lands, but the government maintains mining rights and isn't legally bound to obtain the communities' consent to begin mining projects.

While contracts specify that 10 percent of the royalties should benefit local communities, activists say that can't compensate for harm to Amazon forests and watersheds.

The protesters, from various indigenous groups, also express concern about plans for more oil drilling in the country and a proposed gold mining project in the Amazon that aims to tap an estimated 6.4 million ounces of recoverable gold reserves, currently worth $10.6 billion.

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Gonzalo Solano on Twitter: http://twitter.com/GESolano

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