Protesters tear-gassed in Bogota as Duque starts 'national conversation'

Rodrigo ALMONACID, Florence PANOUSSIAN
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A riot policeman kicks a tear-gas canister during an anti-government protest in Bogota on November 23, 2019

Security forces tear-gassed protesters who filled the streets of Bogota on Saturday for a third straight day, as President Ivan Duque announced the start of a "national conversation" to assuage popular anger.

Duque, a conservative who is deeply unpopular 18 months after his election, had proposed the talks on Friday in response to nationwide protests a day earlier that descended into violence, leaving three dead.

"Tomorrow, with Mayors and Governors elected from all over the country we will start the National Conversation," he wrote on Twitter on Saturday evening, referring to officials who won October polls.

Duque said he would meet Monday with the ministers of finance, labor and trade, along with representatives of business owners and workers, while dialogue with "different social sectors" would take place next week.

Following an overnight curfew in Bogota, demonstrators returned to the streets on Saturday as crews cleared debris from earlier clashes and looting.

"We woke up. Change is underway and it won't stop," protester Juan Sebastian Patino, 32, told AFP.

Protesters are demanding, among other things, a crackdown on drug trafficking and violence, more flexible labor market conditions and improved retirement benefits.

- Tear gas, rubber bullets -

Duque, 43, has been criticized for his economic, social and security policies, as his administration deals with hosting 1.4 million refugees from neighboring Venezuela's economic meltdown as well as the complex fallout of a 2016 peace deal with FARC rebels.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Bogota and other cities on Thursday as part of a nationwide general strike.

There were arrests and clashes as trade unions, students, opposition parties and the South American country's indigenous organizations vented their anger.

Three people have died and nearly 300 were wounded in the unrest.

Demonstrations on Friday were marked by people banging pots and pans in a clamorous protest known as a "cacerolazo," common in parts of Latin America but only a recent phenomenon in Colombia.

Protests grew Saturday in Bogota, as well as Cali and Medellin, as indignation spread over reports of security forces dispersing peaceful crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.

In Bogota, some 13,000 soldiers and riot police kept watch over sensitive neighborhoods in the city of seven million.

"These patrols are necessary and ensure tranquility," said Duque, who did not indicate how long the armed patrols would continue.

Bogota, known for its mammoth traffic jams, had taken on the feel of a ghost town overnight as it came under a curfew, the first in the city since 1977.

More than 330 arrests were reported, mainly for violating the curfew, which was also enforced in Cali, the country's third-largest city.

In the capital, hundreds of people defied the curfew to converge in front of Duque's home, singing the national anthem and banging pots and pans for an hour.

- 'Responsible' -

The violent protests had no clearly identifiable leaders.

Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa denied that the worst violence was linked to the anti-Duque protests.

"This is not a strike, or a democratic march, or a 'cacerolazo,'" he said. "We're confronted with a minority of delinquents who are destroying the city."

Duque had previously warned that Colombia could be shaken by upheavals like those roiling Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia, and he expelled 24 Venezuelans he said were trying to promote unrest.

Venezuela's leftist leader Nicolas Maduro on Saturday accused Duque of being "responsible" for the discontent that led to the mass protests.

"It's you, Ivan Duque, and your inability to give peace, well-being, prosperity and social protection to the people of Colombia," Maduro said in a televised address.

There's no love lost between Duque and Maduro as Colombia, along with the United States, leads an international campaign to oust the Venezuelan president, who they view as illegitimate.

Elsewhere, three police officers and a civilian were killed after an attack on a police station in southwestern Colombia on Friday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said. Ten were wounded in the attack that involved a gas cylinder loaded with explosives.

But city secretary Jaime Asprilla blamed armed groups in the area, and not anti-government protesters.