Colombia protest leaders push Duque on dialogue

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Protest leaders in Colombia on Thursday urged President Ivan Duque to include them in negotiations aimed at ending demonstrations that have rocked his right-wing government.

The National Strike Committee - which groups unions, students, university lecturers and indigenous groups - called in an open letter for an “inclusive, democratic and effective dialogue,” while also vowing to continue protesting following Duque’s announcement of a “national dialogue” earlier in the week.

“We believe that the slogan now is: the strike continues,” said Jimmy Moreno, a spokesman for the committee backing the daily anti-government protests, which are the largest in decades and have led to clashes with security forces.

Hundreds of people, some playing musical instruments and others banging pots and pans, demonstrated on Thursday in the north of the capital Bogota.

That came after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bogota on Wednesday, shutting down public transportation. Similar demonstrations were held in Cali and Medellin.

The protests have been largely peaceful but sporadic violence has left four dead - including a young man who died Monday after being wounded in clashes with riot police on Saturday. Some 500 people have been injured.

Police said 184 people had been detained in the protests since last week.

Under fire for his economic policies and corruption, Duque launched the national dialogue with mayors and other officials on Sunday.

The strike committee, which has said it wants a separate, direct dialogue with the president, has presented Duque with a list of 13 demands, including the withdrawal of his proposed tax reforms, and full compliance with the 2016 peace deal with FARC guerrillas.

But perhaps the most controversial is the call to dismantle the feared ESMAD riot police, after the Monday death of 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz, who was hit in the head by a tear gas canister.

Duque has yielded to some of the demands on tax reform, announcing the return of Value Added Tax to the poorest 20 percent of the population and benefits for companies that hire young people.

Meanwhile on Thursday indigenous guards from Cauca, a southwestern region plague by drug-related violence, announced they would join the protests.

Carrying traditional canes, a delegations of indigenous leaders arrived in Bogota to demand the government do more to protect them, saying 134 members of their community have been murdered since Duque took office in August 2018.

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