Ecuador's police chief quits

2010-10-01 17:09

Quito - Ecuador's police chief has stepped down after failing to stop a rebellion by officers who attacked President Rafael Correa and trapped him inside a hospital until troops rescued him in the worst crisis of his rule.

Correa emerged triumphant from the standoff on Thursday night but he faces a political fight to push through austerity measures testing his popularity, and his authority has been rocked by the police protests over cuts to their bonuses.

He was forced to take refuge in the hospital after an attempt to talk to the protesting police ended in chaos.

The left-wing president, accompanied by his wife, was pushed around and a tear gas canister exploded close to his face.

Correa, 47, was then trapped inside the hospital for hours before troops rescued him amid a blaze of gunfire.

It is still not clear whether Correa was targeted as part of an organised coup attempt, as he claimed, or whether it was simply a protest that spiraled out of control.

Some police officers were clearly challenging the president and he may also be worried by the involvement of some troops who shut down Quito's international airport, but the armed forces' leadership stood by him and there was no sign of the police protest sparking wider demonstrations against his rule.

Correa is Ecuador's most popular leader in years and until Thursday had been able to avoid the instability, violent street protests and coups that have marked the Opec nation's recent history.

Police chief Freddy Martinez was not involved in the protests but failed to stop them, so he was the first senior officer to lose his job.

"Last night he told me he had presented his resignation," a police spokesperson told Reuters.

The United Nations and governments from Washington to Havana lined up behind Correa on Thursday, sending strong messages of support.

"I give so much thanks to those heroes who accompanied me through this hard journey," Correa told cheering supporters from the balcony of his presidential palace.

"Despite the danger, being surrounded, ministers and politicians came, to die if necessary. With that bravery, with that loyalty, nothing can defeat us."

The Red Cross said two police officers died as troops stormed the hospital.

The government spoke of one dead.

At least 88 people were injured earlier when Correa supporters skirmished with police outside the building, and there was some unrest in other cities, too.

Debt default

Correa, a US-trained economist and ally of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, took office in 2007 and alienated international investors a year later when his government defaulted on $3.2bn in global bonds.

He won strong public approval for policies such as exerting greater state control over natural resources, including thrashing out new contracts with foreign oil firms.

His efforts to cut back spending made him enemies, however, including some of the rank and file in the security forces.

Analysts predicted Correa would ride out the crisis thanks to his public support, the lack of unified opposition to his administration, and the fact that the police high command did not back the protests by their subordinates.

His government may now need to proceed cautiously with austerity measures, however.

Correa still faces a potentially damaging showdown with Congress.

Half of the 24 members are officially allied with him but some in his left-wing Country Alliance party have been blocking budget proposals aimed at cutting state costs.

Ecuador's 2-year-old constitution lets the president declare an impasse, dissolve Congress and rule by decree until a new presidential and parliamentary election.

Such a move - which Correa has said he is considering - would still need to be approved by the Constitutional Court.

South American leaders who met in Buenos Aires for an emergency meeting of the Unasur group welcomed Correa's return to the presidential palace and said they would send their foreign ministers to Quito to show support for him.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has clashed with Correa in the past, said the region's condemnation of Thursday's turmoil showed "South America is united."

"We're united in the region to defend democracy. That's a very important signal," he said.