Ten of thousands of protesters mark third national strike in Colombia
By Oliver Griffin
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian unions and student groups marked a third national strike on Wednesday with marches, chants and dancing, ahead of additional dialogue between protest leaders and the government over President Ivan Duque's social and economic policies.
It was the latest demonstration in two weeks of protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of marchers and put pressure on Duque's proposed tax reform, which lowers duties on businesses.
Duque announced a "great national dialogue" on social issues, but government efforts to stop demonstrations have failed. The union-led National Strike Committee has stuck to demands for one-on-one talks and refused to call off protests.
The demonstrations, while largely peaceful, resulted in damage to dozens of public transport stations and curfews in the city of Cali and the capital Bogota.
Protesters have wide-ranging demands - including that the government do more to stop the murder of human rights activists; support former leftist rebels who demobilized under a peace deal; and dissolve the ESMAD riot police, accused by marchers of using excessive force.
About 40,000 people had joined the Wednesday protest, the interior minister said in a news conference. Some public transit stations were closed as marchers blocked roads.
Protesters in Bogota gathered in central Bolivar Plaza.
"It's a time for lots of sectors in our country to wake up. The poor are very poor and the rich have everything," said Silvia Torres, 38.
Torres brought her one-year-old daughter Amelia for her first march. Amelia's uncle Nicolas Ruiz, a 25-year-old construction worker, said he hopes it is her last.
"I hope she doesn't have to protest."
Five have died in connection with the demonstrations, which started on Nov. 21 and have occurred in tandem with protests in other Latin American countries.
The president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) called for peaceful marches in comments to Reuters early on Wednesday.
The CUT, Colombia's largest union, and other committee members are expected to keep meeting with Duque's representatives on Thursday.
The committee's 13 demands include that the government reject a rise in the pension age and a cut in the minimum wage for young people, both policies Duque denies supporting.
The government has repeatedly said the demands for one-on-one dialogue exclude other sectors and that it cannot meet demands that it refrain from deploying the ESMAD.
ESMAD squads have been significantly less visible since an 18-year-old protester was fatally injured 10 days ago by a projectile launched by the force.
(Reporting by Oliver Griffin, additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Carlos Vargas; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Steve Orlofsky and David Gregorio)