Ecuadorean soldiers rescue president after firefight with rebel cops outside hospital

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ecuador troops rescue president from rebel cops

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador was under a state of siege Friday, with the military in charge of public order after rescuing President Rafael Correa from a hospital where he had been surrounded, roughed up and tear gassed by rebellious police.

Correa and his ministers called Thursday’s revolt — in which insurgents also paralyzed the nation with airport shutdowns and highway blockades — an attempt to overthrow him and not just a simple insurrection over a new law that cuts benefits for public servants.

At least three people — two police officers and a soldier — were killed and dozens injured in the clashes, said Irina Cabezas. the vice president of congress. Five soldiers were wounded — two critically — in the firefight at the hospital before Correa was removed at top speed in an SUV, according to the military and Red Cross.

Correa was trapped for more than 12 hours in the hospital, where he was being treated for the tear-gassing that nearly asphyxiated him when he tried to reason with angry police officers at a capital barracks. The officers also roughed him up and pelted him with water.

The region’s leaders and the United States have expressed firm support for Correa. Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, summoned South American presidents to an emergency meeting Friday in Buenos Aires of the continent’s fledgling UNASUR defense union.

Correa, 47, speaking from the balcony of the Carondelet palace after his dramatic rescue, told hundreds of cheering supporters that Thursday “was the saddest day of my life.” He thanked those who had converged on the hospital Thursday “ready to die to defend democracy” — his loyalists had hurled stones at mutinous police, who repelled them with tear gas.

The president said 27 of his special forces bodyguards had been injured in the melee and the unrest was not just a pay dispute.

“There were lots of infiltrators, dressed as civilians, and we know where they were from,” the U.S.-trained leftist economist shouted.

In a post-midnight news conference Friday, Correa added: “They wanted deaths, they wanted blood.” He sat in a ceremonial chair and wore the yellow, blue and red presidential sash.

He had blamed his political foes all day, but without naming anyone specifically. His foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, however, pointed the finger at former President Lucio Gutierrez, who co-led the 2000 coup that ousted Jamil Mahuad. In a TV interview, Gutierrez called that accusation “totally false.”

The chief of the national police, Gen. Freddy Martinez, gave Correa his resignation because of Thursday’s events, police spokesman Richard Ramirez told The Associated Press.

Dramatic images of the rescue, broadcast by TV stations, showed one helmeted soldier dressed in black and wearing a flak jacket apparently struck by a bullet. He tumbled down a small embankment outside the hospital. The Red Cross said at least one civilian was also wounded.

At the hospital, Correa had vowed to defend his dignity and leave either “as president or as a corpse.” He also negotiated with some of the insurrectionists, but whether any were placated was unclear.

The hospital’s director, Cesar Carrion, disputed Correa’s claim to have been “practically captive” in the building. He said the president had his security detail and that no armed police were ever let inside.

After troops intervened, Correa was rushed out wearing a gas mask and a helmet. He was in a wheelchair — he had surgery on his right knee last week.

It was unclear early Friday how soon Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport and the airfields in Guayaquil and Manta, which were shut to international traffic Thursday by soldiers, would reopen.

Thursday’s nationwide action prompted businesses and schools to close early as police abandoned streets and took over barracks in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities. Some police set up roadblocks of burning tires, cutting off highway access to the capital.

Looting was reported in the capital — where at least two banks were sacked — and in the coastal city of Guayaquil. That city’s main newspaper, El Universo, reported attacks on supermarkets and robberies due to the absence of police.

The government declared a state of siege, putting the military in charge of order, suspending civil liberties and allowing warrantless searches. Peru and Colombia closed their countries’ borders with Ecuador in solidarity with Correa.

The U.S. Embassy warned U.S. citizens to “stay in their homes or current location, if safe.”

Hours before Correa’s rescue, the armed forces chief, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, declared the military’s loyalty to the president. He called for “a re-establishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadoreans can resolve our differences.”

But he also called for the law that provoked the unrest to be “reviewed or not placed into effect so public servants, soldiers and police don’t see their rights affected.”

The law, approved Wednesday by a Congress dominated by Correa loyalists, has not taken effect because it must first be published.

This poor Andean nation of 14 million people had a history of political instability before Correa, cycling through eight presidents in a decade before he first won election in December 2006. Three of those presidents were driven from office by street protests.

Like his leftist ally President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Correa has drastically cut royalties to multinational oil companies in favor of his people, discouraging direct foreign investment while courting such nations as Iran and Russia.

In April 2009, after voters approved a new constitution he championed, Correa became Ecuador’s first president to win election without a runoff. That success has led him at times to act with overconfidence.

Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo Washington, Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, and Carla Salazar in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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