Colombia's government on Thursday invited protest leaders to a dialogue in a bid to defuse tensions following more than a week of deadly demonstrations.
At least 26 people — mostly demonstrators — have died in clashes with security forces while hundreds more have been wounded.
The unrest began last week over a tax reform proposed to address economic consequences of the pandemic. While the plan was scrapped, the marches have continued, driven in part by security forces' heavy crackdown.
Thousands of Colombians — including indigenous people, union members and students — are joining the protests to express anger over the government's policies on health, education and inequality.
With violence escalating, Presidential advisor Miguel Ceballos said the government would meet protest leaders, including the National Strike Committee, on Monday.
"We have to listen to all sectors of the country but the country also has to listen to the government," Ceballos told Blu Radio.
"That includes those marching but also those not marching."
Ceballos later tweeted that President Ivan Duque and Vice President Lucia Ramirez would attend the meeting.
Protest leaders have said they would be prepared to talk directly with Duque, but not with intermediaries.
Labour leader Francisco Maltes said in a video sent to news media that talks will begin "following the demilitarisation of the countryside and cities where young people peacefully protesting have been massacred."
Demands of protest leaders include improved working conditions, improving the pension system, an end to the assassination of human rights activists and full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement reached with the FARC guerrillas.
In the meantime "we will continue the national strike," Maltes warned.
If the talks take place under the current terms "they will noisily collapse," said Sandra Borda, a political scientist at the Universidad de los Andes.
"They are meeting with the same people they've always met with," Borda told AFP.
Duque, whose approval rating is just 33 percent, has faced occasional mass protests since taking office in August 2018.
Although the current round of demonstrations largely been peaceful, there have been violent clashes in different parts of the country.
Demonstrators have set fire to buses and police stations, while trucks carrying fuel and medical supplies have required military protection to get through as the country battles another coronavirus wave.
The government blames the violence on armed groups including left-wing rebels and drug-traffickers.
The United Nations, European Union, United States and NGOs have urged security forces to exercise restraint.
Speaking to journalists in Washington on Thursday, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios said various government agencies were collaborating to determine who was responsible for the violence.
"If there has been any use of excessive force for them to be held accountable," Palacios said.
— TIMES / AFP