01 Oct 2010
Security forces loyal to Ecuador’s president have stormed a hospital in the capital, Quito, where Rafael Correa was trapped by police officers protesting over plans to cut their benefits.
Correa was rushed out of the building after the soldiers moved amid heavy gunfire late on Thursday.
“President Correa is leaving in a wheelchair and a mask so as not to breath in gas,” state media said.
Crowds of supporters celebrated, waving flags and cheering, as Correa appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace in Quito shortly after his release.
Correa had been taken to the hospital after being attacked with tear gas when he tried to speak to officers at a police barracks earlier in the day.
The president had told local media from the hospital that he would not negotiate with the protesters while he was “practically captive” in the hospital.
“I’ll leave here as president or they’ll take me out as a corpse,” Correa said.
“The people who have come to see me are very polite. They’ve told me, ‘We can talk’ and I told them, ‘When I get out of here, we can communicate and I’ll even have lunch with your families to discuss all the police’s problems.
“While this is the situation, there’s nothing to talk about, nothing to agree about. And don’t you dare bring me something to sign.”
Clashes between Correas’s supporters and the protesting police officers outside the hospital left at least one person dead and six others injured on Thursday, according to Miguel Carvajal, the security minister.
The military is currently in charge of public order in the country after a state of emergency was declared, with civil liberties suspended and soldiers authorised to carry out searches without a warrant.
Ecuador’s army chief has demanded that the renegade police officers end an uprising against the government.
General Ernesto Gonzalez, the army chief, has demanded that the renegade officers end their uprising and said those involved “would have their rights respected” if they turned themselves in.
He said that the military remained loyal to Correa. “We are in a state of law. We are loyal to the maximum authority, which is the president,” he told reporters.
Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s foreign minister, had called on a large crowd gathered outside the presidential palace to “rescue” Correa.
“[He] has said that there are people trying to get in from the roof and attack him,” Patino told the crowd. “I want to invite the brave people here below to go with us to rescue the president.”
Witnesses said there was looting in Quito and in the city of Guayaquil, and that many workers and school students were being sent home.
Police in the cities held protests at their headquarters. Officers in Guayaquil blocked some roads leading to the coastal city, Ecuador’s most populous.
“In front of every police station there are tyres burning with smoke rising into the evening sky,” Stephan Kueffner, a Quito-based journalist, told Al Jazeera.
“The police force guarding the congress building has also joined the strike and therefore there are a few members of the legislature that are in isolation.”
Patino played down the severity of the protests.
“This is not a popular mobilisation, it is not a popular uprising, it is an uprising by the police who are ill-informed,” he told the TV network Telesur.
Diego Borja, the central bank chief, called for calm and urged Ecuadoreans not to withdraw money from banks.
Ecuador, an member with a population of 14 million, has a long history of political instability. Street protests toppled three presidents during economic turmoil in the decade before Correa took power.“The police are taking advantage of a political crisis in the National Assembly, the congress, in which the ruling party is split over legislation,” Colin Harding, a Latin America expert, told Al Jazeera in London.
“They are taking the opportunity to take to the streets to press their demands.”
Members of Correa’s own left-wing party are blocking legislative proposals aimed at cutting state costs, prompting him to mull disbanding congress, a move that would let him rule by decree until new elections, one of his ministers said.
Ecuador’s two-year-old constitution allows the president to declare a political impasse that could dissolve congress until a new presidential and parliamentary elections can be held.
The measure would, however, have to be approved by the Constitutional Court to take effect.
“This a scenario that nobody would want, but it is a possibility when the conditions for change do not exist,” Doris Solis, the policy minister, said after meeting Correa and other senior officials late on Wednesday.
“A decision still has not been made,” she told reporters.
“Lawmakers in our coalition have the obligation to be coherent with our project for change.”
More than half of the 124-member Congress are officially allied with Correa, but the president has blasted congressmen from his own Country Alliance party for not going along with his proposals for shrinking the country’s bureaucracy.
Correa, a US trained economist, was first elected in 2006 promising a “citizens’ revolution” aimed at increasing state control of Ecuador’s natural resources and fighting what he calls the country’s corrupt elite.
His government alienated international capital markets when it defaulted on $3.2 billion in global bonds two years ago. Correa described the debt as “illegitimate.”
Cash has been tight since then as the country relies on multilateral loans and bilateral lending to meet its international financing obligations.
Once in power, Correa backed the rewriting of the constitution to tilt the balance of power toward the executive. He easily won re-election under the new constitution in 2009, and he is allowed to stand again in 2013.