Protesting police throw Ecuador into chaos
Hundreds of police angry over a law that would cut their benefits plunged this small South American nation into chaos Thursday, roughing up and tear-gassing the president, shutting down airports and blocking highways in a nationwide strike.
At least one person was killed and six injured in clashes between police and supporters of President Rafael Correa, the security minister said.
Incensed officers shoved Correa around earlier, pelted him with water and doused him in tear gas when he tried to speak at a police barracks in the capital.
Hours after Correa was roughed up, surrounded by rebel cops in a police hospital, the president declared himself "practically captive."
Correa, 47, was hospitalized after being nearly asphyxiated by the tear gas.
Supporters of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa protest against rebellious police outside the hospital where Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is located in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday Sept. 30, 2010.
(AP Photo/Patricio Realpe)
The government declared a state of siege, putting the military in charge of public order, suspending civil liberties and allowing soldiers to carry out searches without a warrant.
The insurgent police took over police barracks in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities. Some set up roadblocks of burning tires, cutting off highway access to the capital.
Schools shut down in Quito and many businesses closed early due to the absence of police protection that left citizens and businesses vulnerable.
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.
Hundreds of Correa supporters gathered outside the National Assembly, which was seized by striking police, while Interior Minister Gustavo Jahlk met with representatives of the rebellious police.
The armed forces commander, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, declared the military’s loyalty to Correa at a news conference. 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, which Congress approved on Wednesday, must be published before it takes effect and that has not happened.
Peru and Colombia closed their countries’ borders with Ecuador in solidarity with Correa. Along with the rest of the region’s leaders and the United States, they expressed firm support for Correa. Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, summoned South America’s presidents to an emergency meeting Thursday night in Buenos Aires of the continent’s fledgling UNASUR defense union.
This poor Andean nation of 14 million had a history of political instability before Correa, cycling through eight presidents in a decade before the leftist U.S.-trained economist first won election in December 2006. Three of them were driven from office by street protests.
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, even arrogance.
Confronting the protesters Thursday morning, Correa was agitated and unyielding.
"If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me!" he told them before limping away with the aid of a cane as an aide fitted a gas mask over his face. Correa’s right knee, with which he has had recurring problems, was operated on last week.
Some 800 police officers in Quito joined the protest, which appeared to have arisen spontaneously. The number of participants outside the capital was unclear. Ecuador has 40,000 police officers.
Correa called the unrest "an attempted coup" spurred by his opponents in remarks to reporters at the police hospital, where he at one point was hooked to an intravenous drip. "They’re practically holding the president captive," he said.
The insurgent police surrounding the hospital fought with Correa supporters, and Miguel Carvajal, the security minister, told reporters that one person was killed and six injured. He provided no details.
Correa’s leftist ally, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, claimed after speaking to Correa that the Ecuadorean leader was "in danger of being killed" by the encircling police.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said at one point that insurgents were trying to enter the hospital through the roof.
"They are trying to oust President Correa," Chavez said via Twitter.
That claim was echoed by Cuba while the Organization of American States’ secretary-general, Miguel Insulza, called the situation "a coup d’etat in the making."
The United States didn’t go that far.
"We urge all Ecuadorians to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador’s democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.
Ecuador’s ambassador to the OAS, Maria Isabel Salvador, alleged involvement by "opposition politicians with military backgrounds and police ties."
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