Police riot, throw Ecuador into chaos
Rebellious police angered by a law that cuts their benefits roughed up the president, shut down airports and blocked highways in a nationwide strike
By Tatiana Coba
QUITO, Ecuador — The government declared a state of siege Thursday after rebellious police angered by a law that cuts their benefits plunged this small South American nation into chaos, roughing up the president, shutting down airports and blocking highways in a nationwide strike.
Incensed officers shoved President Rafael Correa around and pelted him with tear gas and water when he tried to speak at a police barracks in the capital.
Correa, 47, was hospitalized from the effects of the gas.
The state of siege puts the military in charge of public order, suspending civil liberties and allowing soldiers to carry out searches without a warrant.
Hundreds of officers involved in the insurrection 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 to crime.
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 occupied by striking police.
The commander of Ecuador's armed forces, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, later declared the military's loyalty to Correa in a televised statement. He called for "a re-establishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadoreans can resolve our differences."
When Correa confronted the protesters earlier, he 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 was operated on just last week.
It was not immediately clear how much of the police force had joined the protest, which appeared to have arisen spontaneously.
There were no reports of serious violence.
But Correa called the unrest "an attempted coup by the opposition," speaking to reporters by telephone from the hospital where he said he was hooked to an intravenous drip.
There was no immediate evidence the police uprising was organized by the opposition and no protest leaders emerged to denounce the government.
Correa's leftist ally, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, claimed that Correa was "in danger of being killed" by police who were preventing him from leaving the police hospital where he spent all day after the morning tumult.
Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said at one point that insurgents were trying to enter the hospital through the roof and called on supporters to march on the hospital to rescue Correa.
"They are trying to oust President Correa," Chavez said via Twitter. That claim was echoed by Cuba. Peru's president, Alan Garcia, said he was shutting his country's border with Ecuador until Correa's "democratic authority" was re-established.
Other leaders in the region expressed firm support for Correa, as did the Organization of American States. Its secretary-general, Miguel Insulza, called the situation "a coup d'etat in the making."
Washington's OAS ambassador, Carmen Lomellin, did not go that far. She said the U.S. "condemns any atempt to violate or alter the democratic process and constitutional order in Ecuador."
Although there was no evidence of opposition ties to the police protesters, Ecuador's ambassador to the OAS, Maria Isabel Salvador, alleged involvement by "opposition politicians with military backgrounds and police ties."
The striking police were angered by a law passed by Congress on Wednesday that 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.
"They are a bunch of ungrateful bandits," Correa said of the protesters. "No one has supported the police as much as this government," he told reporters.
The law needs to be published before it takes effect and that has not happened.
The U.S. Embassy issued a message warning U.S. citizens "of a "nationwide strike by all levels of police, including military police." It warned them to "stay in their homes or current location, if safe."
The president's policy coordination minister, Doris Soliz, asked Ecuadoreans to be calm and support the government. "This is an act of indiscipline that is going to be controlled. It is being controlled," she said. "The military chiefs are completely supporting democracy."
Air force troops shut down Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport as the protests began Thursday morning. An airport official who refused to give her name said "operations have been suspended."
The airport's president, Philippe Baril, told a local radio station that 300 troops had occupied runways, forcing flight cancelations. About 700 passengers were stranded, he said.
The U.S. Embassy said Guayaquil's airport was also closed.
Traditionally unstable politically, this nation of 14 million has seen relative peace and stability since Correa, a U.S.-trained economist allied with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, took office in January 2007.
After voters approved a new constitution, Correa was re-elected in April 2009 with 51 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate field, the first Ecuadorean president to win the office in 30 years without a runoff.
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