Price rise sparks Ecuador strike

ECUADOR'S main trade union federation has called a general strike today in protest at a 70 per cent increase in the price of petrol, decreed by the right-wing government of President Sixto Duran-Ballen at the weekend, writes Colin Harding.

At least seven policemen have been injured in clashes with students and workers on the streets of the capital, Quito, and other big cities over the past four days. Police have deployed armoured cars and water cannons and arrested dozens of protesters. On Tuesday demonstrators stoned the car of Vice-President Alberto Dahik, the brains behind the government's free-market economic policies.

The petrol price increases are intended to cover a budget deficit expected to reach dollars 500m ( pounds 340m) this year. Petrol is still very cheap at little more than dollars 1 a gallon, but union leaders argue that living standards for the majority of Ecuador's 10.5 million people have dwindled rapidly over 18 months of fiscal austerity since Mr Duran-Ballen took office in August 1992.

Today's general strike, called by the United Workers' Front (FUT), comes on the heels of a nine-week stoppage by Ecuador's 130,000 schoolteachers, which only ended when the government threatened to declare a state of emergency and put the teachers under military discipline.