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Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 4:40:02 AM
Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 4:41:13 AM
by luis jaime acosta AND helen murphy
A police officer takes shelter behind the shields of his colleagues during a protest against the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Medellin August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's farm leaders agreed on Saturday to end a three-week protest that had turned violent, caused food shortages and put pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos just a few months before he must decide whether to seek a second term in office.
Thousands of farmers have been manning roadblocks on major highways, preventing supplies from reaching cities, and clashing with police in a national show of anger.
At least five people died in the protests.
The farmers are angry at the high price of fertilizers and at free-trade agreements with the United States and Europe that made it hard to compete with cheap imports.
The rural protests came at an already difficult time for Santos, under pressure over the slow pace of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
With eight months to go before the presidential election, and a November deadline looming to announce if he is running again, Santos' approval rating has slumped to 21 percent in a Gallup opinion poll at just the wrong time for him.
The 62-year-old, Harvard-educated scion of one of Colombia's most influential families, Santos has not yet said whether he will seek re-election. Analysts expect him to run, and say he would still be the favourite despite the recent problems.
The government signed accords with farm leaders in Cundinamarca, Boyaca, Narino and Huila provinces to cut fertilizer prices and provide cheap credit among other concessions.
Some of the biggest protests had come from those areas.
The Finance Ministry has said it will increase the size of the 2014 budget to fund the agriculture sector.
"The farm sector can't take any more and the most important thing is that the popular revolution is what woke up the nation," said Cesar Pachon, who led the protest, which echoed recent social protests in Brazil.
"This is what made the government accept that it's to blame for the rural crisis."
Santos angered farmers at the start of the protest, belittling it and inflaming tensions that came to a head in clashes on the streets of Bogota and other cities.
The centre-right president, who is an ally of the United States, ordered troops to patrol Bogota to stem looting and damage to offices and banks near the main square.
An end to the labour unrest will return Colombia's focus to talks in Havana with the FARC as the government tries to bring an end to five decades of conflict that has left as many as 200,000 dead since it began.
The Marxist rebel group has sought to bolster its sway in rural areas, backing the farm protest and offering support to other social movements.
Santos took a political risk last year announcing peace talks with the drug-funded group and is also paving the way for negotiations with the smaller guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
His ability to garner enough support for a second run next year may depend on showing progress at the negotiating table with the FARC. So far, only partial agreement has been reached on the five-point agenda.
Political opponents like his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, are working to promote alternative candidates and discredit Santos' policies and the peace process.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney)
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