Soldiers firing automatic weapons and concussion grenades rescued Ecuador’s president today from a hospital where he had been trapped by police rebelling over benefit cuts.
At least one security force member was wounded in the 35-minute operation in the capital Quito and the government said at least one person was killed and six injured in clashes yesterday outside the hospital between Rafael Correa’s supporters and rebel police.
After being spirited away from the hospital at top speed in an SUV, Mr Correa, 47, told cheering supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet palace that the uprising was more than a simple police protest.
“There were lots of infiltrators, dressed as civilian and we know where they were from,” he shouted. But he did not blame anyone specifically.
Mr Correa was trapped in the hospital for more than 12 hours after being treated for a tear-gassing that nearly asphyxiated him during a confrontation with hundreds of angry police officers who also shoved him and pelted him with water.
He thanked all his supporters who went to the hospital and “were ready to die to defend democracy”.
The violence began when hundreds of police angry over the new civil service law plunged the oil-exporting South American country into chaos, roughing up and tear-gassing Mr Correa, shutting down airports and blocking roads in a nationwide strike.
At the hospital Mr Correa had vowed to leave either “as president or as a corpse”. He also negotiated with some of the rebels, but the outcome of those talks was unclear.
Hours before the rescue armed forces chief General Ernesto Gonzalez declared the military’s loyalty to Mr Correa, calling for “a re-establishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadoreans can resolve our differences”.
But General Gonzalez 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.
After police took to the streets, 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.
Police took over barracks in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities. Some set up roadblocks of burning tyres, 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.
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 Mr Correa.
Bolivia’s left-wing president Evo Morales summoned South America’s presidents to an emergency meeting today in Buenos Aires of the continent’s fledgling UNASUR defence union.
Ecuador, a nation of 14 million people, had a history of political instability before Mr Correa, cycling through eight presidents in a decade before the leftist US-trained economist first won election in December 2006. Three of them were driven from office by street protests that plagued the country, which is a member of OPEC.
In April 2009, after voters approved a new constitution he championed, Mr Correa became Ecuador’s first president to win election without a run-off. That success has led him at times to act with overconfidence.
Confronting the protesters yesterday, 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. Mr 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.
Mr 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.
Correa’s socialist ally, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, claimed earlier that the Ecuadorean leader was “in danger of being killed”.
The striking police were angered by a law 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.
Mr Correa said the law “is removing bonus payments and decorations from the entire public sector ... to prevent abuses of state money. We know the Ecuadorean people support us in all this”.
Mr Correa said those responsible for the rebellion would be punished.
“There will be no pardon,” he said.
Dramatic live images of the rescue broadcast by TV stations showed one helmeted soldier dressed in black and wearing a flak jacket as he was apparently hit by a bullet and tumbled down a small embankment outside the hospital. The Red Cross said at least one civilian was wounded.
The military said later at least five soldiers were wounded in the 35-minute firefight.