Thousands march in Colombia as president urges rejection of violence

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BOGOTA/CALI, May 12 (Reuters) - Union members, students, pensioners and workers marched in anti-government protests around Colombia on Wednesday, as President Ivan Duque urged citizens to reject violence and stereotypes about demonstrators and police alike.

The sometimes deadly demonstrations were initially fueled in late April by outrage at a now-canceled tax plan. But protesters' demands have expanded to include an end to police violence, economic support as the COVID-19 pandemic batters incomes, and the withdrawal of a health reform.

Duque has offered dialogue, but many protesters have voiced skepticism government promises will lead to change and talks with union and student leaders have so far proved fruitless.

Smaller demonstrations and road blockades have continued daily around the country, leading to shortages of goods, stymieing the export of half a million 60 kilo bags of top crop coffee, and requiring the importation of tens of thousands of barrels of fuel from neighboring Ecuador.

"It is unjust to paint everyone who expresses themselves peacefully in the streets as a vandal or as a terrorist or as a criminal," Duque said during a meeting with dozens of youth leaders in Bogota. "It is also unjust to generalize the behavior of all the members of the security forces."

The comments were more conciliatory than Duque's discourse earlier in the protests, when he decried incidents of looting and attacks on police.

The human rights ombudsman has received reports of more than 40 civilian deaths amid the protests, though it has said at least seven are unrelated to the marches themselves. One police officer was also killed.

Local and international rights groups allege the death toll may be higher and have blamed the police. So far three officers face murder charges.

In the western city of Cali, a hub of protest violence, a group of about 100 young people blocked a central highway.

"The government is censuring us, killing us, forcing a health reform, a pension reform," said 19-year-old university student John, who declined to give his last name. "We will resist until there's a change."

In capital Bogota thousands marched to central Bolivar Square and the mayor urged people to return home early as demonstrators blocked mass transit routes.

Nurse Paula Garcia, 22, was confident the health reform - which critics say does not do enough to ensure the wider access to healthcare they are demanding - can be stopped after the tax reform's withdrawal.

"If we unite, we can succeed," she said.

Many Latin American countries - already deeply unequal and politically volatile - have been hit hard by the pandemic, which has rolled back recent anti-poverty strides.

Unemployment in Colombia reached nearly 17% in urban areas in April and the country looks set to lose its investment-grade credit rating amid falls in the value of its public debt, stock market, and peso currency.

Finance minister Jose Manuel Restrepo, who attended Duque's meeting with youth leaders, said acts of vandalism and road blockades had cost the economy about $1.6 billion, while agriculture minister Rodolfo Zea said blockades had halted transport of 700,000 tonnes of food.

Protests have been successful at putting pressure on the government but unions want clear rules before entering talks, Francisco Maltes, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) said in a video posted on Facebook.

The protests go beyond the anger at inequality and the impact of COVID-19 seen elsewhere in the region, said Gimena Sanchez, Director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Colombia has struggled with decades of bloody civil strife and drug violence that a 2016 peace agreement has diminished but not ended.

“The Colombia protests are not just about COVID, they are about anger towards Duque for police repression from 2019 onwards, not advancing the 2016 peace accord, rising massacres and killings of social leaders and the perception by middle and working class Colombians that the government is only interested in advancing the economic and political elites’ agendas,” she said.

(This story refiles to add dropped name to byline)

Reporting by Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, editing by Alexandra Hudson

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