Colombia president says security forces to lift road blockades


FILE PHOTO: Trucks are seen blocking a road during a protest against the tax reform of President Ivan Duque's government in Zipaquira, Colombia May 3, 2021. REUTERS/Herbert Villarraga

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Road blockades connected to weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia will be lifted by security forces in coordination with mayors and provincial governors, President Ivan Duque said on Monday.

The sometimes deadly demonstrations, originally called in late April against a now-canceled tax plan, have expanded to include demands like a basic income, an end to police violence and opportunities for young people.

The blockades, many erected by local demonstrators or truckers, have caused shortages of food and gasoline across the country, especially in the city of Cali, an epicenter of protests. The government says some are connected to criminal and guerrilla groups, which it also blames for sparking looting and other violence.

Duque said he had ordered "the increase of all operational capacity of our public security forces on the ground to - together with mayors and governors - unblock the roads of our country with strict adherence to human rights."

The government will also subsidize 25% of the minimum wage for workers between 18 and 28 years old for at least a year, Duque said in a video, in an effort to encourage employers to hire young people.

Vandalism and the blockades have cost the economy about $1.6 billion, while road closures had halted the transport of 700,000 tonnes of food, the government said last week.

The number of deaths connected to the protests is disputed. The attorney general's office says just 15 deaths are tied directly to demonstrations, but human rights groups allege the toll is about two dozen people higher.

Government representatives were meeting late on Monday with representatives from the national strike committee - made up of unions, student groups and others - to agree to terms for a negotiation the government hopes will curb marches.

Protests continued over the weekend and into a federal holiday on Monday, with deaths reported in several smaller cities.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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