By GONZALO SOLANO and TATIANA COBA | Associated Press
October 1, 2010
Ecuador was under a state of siege Friday, the streets quiet with the military in charge of public order, after soldiers rescued President Rafael Correa from a hospital where he’d been surrounded by police who roughed him up and tear-gassed him earlier.
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 by angry security force members over a new law that would cut benefits for public servants.
The region’s presidents quickly showed their support for Correa, rushing to a meeting in Buenos Aires early Friday and condemning what many called a coup attempt and kidnapping of Correa. The U.S. also warned those who threaten Ecuador’s democracy that the leftist Correa has Washington’s full support.
There was no sign on the capital’s streets Friday morning of the rebellious police who had thrown the country into chaos the previous day.
Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport and the airfields in Guayaquil and Manta, which were shut to international traffic Thursday by soldiers, reopened overnight.
At least two police officers and a soldier were killed and dozens injured in Thursday’s mayhem, said Irina Cabezas, the vice president of congress. Dozens were injured.
At least five soldiers were wounded in the firefight at the hospital before Correa was removed at top speed in an SUV, according to the military and Red Cross.
Correa, 47, speaking from the balcony of the Carondelet palace after his rescue, told hundreds of cheering backers that Thursday “was the saddest day of my life.” He said 27 of his special forces bodyguards had been injured.
Correa thanked the supporters who had converged on the hospital “ready to die to defend democracy.” His loyalists had hurled stones at police who repelled them with tear gas.
He said the uprising 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, Correa added: “They wanted deaths, they wanted blood.”
He had blamed his political foes all day, and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino 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.”
Patino said many of the insurgent police had shouted “Viva Lucio!” “Long live Lucio!” in the tense moments of confrontation with Correa.
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.
Correa was trapped for more than 12 hours in the hospital, where he being treated for the tear-gassing that nearly asphyxiated him when he tried to talk with angry police officers at a capital barracks. The officers also roughed him up and pelted him with water.
At the hospital, Correa had vowed to leave either “as president or as a corpse.”
The hospital’s director, Cesar Carrion, disputed Correa’s claim to have been “practically captive” in the building. He said that the president had his security detail at his side and that no armed police were ever let inside.
After the troops intervened, Correa was rushed out wearing a gas mask and a helmet. He was in a wheelchair because of surgery on his right knee last week.
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 public order, suspending civil liberties and allowing warrantless searches. Peru and Colombia closed their countries’ borders with Ecuador in solidarity with Correa.
The leaders of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela rushed to Buenos Aires for an emergency session of the continent’s fledgling UNASUR defense union, meeting with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her husband Nestor Kirchner, the union’s secretary general.
Early Friday, they resolved to send their foreign ministers to Quito and issued a resolution saying that they “energetically condemn the attempted coup and subsequent kidnapping of President Rafael Correa Delgado.”
They also called for those responsible to be tried and convicted, and warned that in the event of new threats to the constitutional order, they would immediately close frontiers and air traffic, suspend commerce and cut off energy supplies and other services to Ecuador.
Both Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia alleged in Buenos Aires on Friday that the United States was somehow behind the police rebellion.
U.S. officials had forcefully declared otherwise.
“The United States deplores violence and lawlessness, and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and the institutions of democratic government in that country,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
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. It would end the practice of giving members of Ecuador’s military and police medals and bonuses with each promotion. It would also extend from five to seven years the usual period required for a subsequent promotion.
Correa said after his rescue that he asked the rebelling police if they had read the law and none had. He blamed what he called hostile rumor-mongering by privately owned media, with which he is sharply at odds, for misinforming them.
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 that plagued the oil-producing country.
Like his leftist ally Chavez, 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.
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.