Protests will continue until President Lasso solves economic and environmental issues affecting the South American country, Indigenous leader Leonidas Iza says after he is freed from detention.

Oil producer Ecuador has been hit by rising inflation, unemployment, and poverty exacerbated by the pandemic.
Oil producer Ecuador has been hit by rising inflation, unemployment, and poverty exacerbated by the pandemic. (AFP)

Ecuadoran Indigenous leader Leonidas Iza has been freed on a judge's orders as protesters flocked to the capital Quito on the third day of anti-government protests led by his organisation.

Some on foot and others on the back of trucks, protesters streamed into the city on Wednesday as police and soldiers kept watch, planning to gather in the historical center that houses the seat of government.

Indigenous Ecuadorans embarked on an open-ended protest on Monday, blockading roads countrywide with burning tires and barricades of sand, rocks and tree branches to protest high fuel prices and living costs.

The protests, which partly blocked access to Quito, were called by the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) –– a group credited with helping topple three Ecuadoran presidents between 1997 and 2005.

Indigenous people make up over a million of Ecuador's 17.7 million inhabitants.

Conaie leader Iza was arrested on the second day of the mass protest on suspicion of "sabotage," the government said – prompting furious supporters to descend on the prosecutor's office to demand he be freed.

'Long live the struggle'

A judge late on Tuesday ordered Iza's release pending trial on what the prosecutor's office said were charges of "allegedly paralysing public transport services."

He risks up to three years in prison.

Iza appeared defiant after his release, telling supporters over a loudhailer: "We are not going to be demoralised ... We maintain the struggle."

"Long live the struggle!" they shouted in response, according to a Facebook livestream.

Conaie said the protest continued with even "more force" on Wednesday as the ECU911 public safety body said more than 9,000 protesters participated in roadblocks in 14 of Ecuador's 24 provinces.

Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo insisted the security services "have control" of the situation.

"We can guarantee that we will contain violence with ... the firmness that Ecuador requires," he said.

READ MORE: Indigenous demonstrators block roads to protest fuel prices in Ecuador

'Acts of vandalism'

Oil producer Ecuador has been hit by rising inflation, unemployment and poverty exacerbated by the pandemic.

Fuel prices have risen sharply since 2020, almost doubling for diesel from $1 to $1.90 per gallon and rising from $1.75 to $2.55 for gasoline.

Conaie has taken part in several rounds of fruitless talks with President Guillermo Lasso's conservative government.

Lasso, who took office a year ago, froze fuel prices last October after a round of Conaie-led protests saw dozens arrested and several people, including police, injured in clashes.

But the freeze failed to assuage simmering anger in a country that exports crude but imports much of the fuel it consumes.

Lasso accused protesters of "acts of vandalism," including "an attack on an oil pumping facility, the cutting off of community water supplies, the closure and serious damage to state roads."

Chinese company PetroOriental said on Tuesday protesters had occupied and paralysed some of its wells in the Amazonian Orellana province, causing a loss of 1,400 barrels of crude per day.

In 2019, Conaie-led protests resulted in 11 deaths and forced then-president Lenin Moreno to abandon plans to eliminate fuel subsidies.

READ MORE: Ecuador's president, protest leaders in talks to end deadly violence

Source: AFP