World

Ecuador's army frees president from police after tense day

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, bottom, is rescued by soldiers from a hospital where he was holed up by protesting police in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday Sept. 30, 2010. Soldiers rescued Correa from a hospital where he had been trapped by rebellious police for more than 12 hours while he was being treated for tear-gas fired by hundreds of police angry over a law that they claim would cut their benefits. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, bottom, is rescued by soldiers from a hospital where he was holed up by protesting police in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday Sept. 30, 2010. Soldiers rescued Correa from a hospital where he had been trapped by rebellious police for more than 12 hours while he was being treated for tear-gas fired by hundreds of police angry over a law that they claim would cut their benefits. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa) Associated Press

CARACAS — Ecuador's military staged a spectacular rescue Thursday night to free President Rafael Correa, who'd been holed up in a hospital for more than 12 hours by a police uprising that threatened the nation's stability.

While television cameras rolled, soldiers launched a daring operation to pluck Correa from a police hospital where he had gone after being injured in a police protest. Sporadic gunfire could be heard and Correa said five soldiers were injured.

A defiant Correa appeared minutes later on the balcony of the presidential palace, lamenting those hurt in the rescue.

"It's a day of profound sadness that I never thought would happen during my government,'' he said. "The police have been infiltrated by well-known political parties that want to conspire.''

The police mutiny came a day after Ecuador's national assembly passed a law that eliminated seniority bonuses and extended the time between police promotions. The law, government officials said, was designed to equalize salaries for all public employees by raising base pay.

Instead, it brought the nation to its knees as police in the capital and other cities walked off the job and took to the streets.

Officers assigned to the National Assembly left their posts and refused to let in lawmakers. The Air Force, siding with police, surrounded Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport and shut it down as criminals took advantage of the lawlessness to loot banks and supermarkets.

The government declared a weeklong state of siege, which suspends some rights and puts law and order in the hands of the military.

Correa had gone to the northern Quito police headquarters to address the officers, only to be pelted by tear gas and knocked about. Correa, who had knee surgery last week, was flanked by just a handful of his closest advisors as he limped through a cloud of tear gas wearing a mask and leaning on a cane.

He went to the nearby police hospital for medical care -- only to find himself trapped there the rest of the day.

"They have the president practically kidnapped,'' Correa said on national television while stuck indoors. "They have not allowed me to leave. I am surrounded.''

Correa said he and his advisors were outnumbered and that ``at any moment'' he could have been killed. He told the TeleSur network he refused to negotiate, saying the officers he met with had not even read the new law.

"Nobody has supported the police like this government has,'' Correa said.

Ximena Landazuri, who lives four blocks from the hospital where Correa was holed up, said the police kept more than a 1,000 protesters at bay with tear gas and rocks.

At about 6:20 p.m., two large trucks carrying some 40 military troops arrived at the site, she said. At about 9:15 p.m., they began approaching the hospital.

Unlike years past, when massive crowds rallied to oust presidents, this time Quiteños defended the head of state, waving Ecuadorean flags and chanting his name.

"The people in the street are pretty indignant that it's the police that are behind this,'' she said.

"The streets around the hospital are full of people supporting Correa.''

Correa said he hoped to avoid bloodshed and trusted the insubordinate police would ``reform.''

"I care about the police very deeply,'' he said. But he also blasted them for having started an uprising not over crimes against humanity but over something as mundane as a salary dispute.

"This is a national disgrace,'' he said.

He said the protest was a long time coming and that mutinous officers worked with ``conspirators'' and opposition members of congress to overthrow him. Correa pointed a finger at former President Lucio Gutiérrez.

In an interview with CNN en Español, Gutiérrez denied the claim and instead accused Correa of having been behind the abrupt end of Gutiérrez' presidency in 2005. He also called for new elections.

In Washington, the Organization of American States called an emergency session to deal with the crisis and passed a resolution supporting Correa. The White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and most presidents of Latin America supported Correa and urged the police to return the country to normalcy.

"He's being blocked by aggressive coup-plotting forces,'' Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told state-run Telesur. `` It's a terrible situation.''

He also said it was "naive'' to think the national uprising had been organized by the police alone, and he blasted the U.S. State Department for not coming out more strongly against the apparent coup attempt.

"Almost certainly it's not just police chiefs involved but political chiefs, too,'' he said. ``The fascist beasts are showing their claws.''

The presidents of the UNASUR nations in South America called a special meeting in Buenos Aires to discuss the crisis. The presidents of Peru and Colombia closed their borders with Ecuador in a show of solidarity.

"All of this show of support is important,'' Luis Gallegos, Ecuador's ambassador in Washington, told The Miami Herald.

He stressed that the law passed Wednesday was intended to eliminate disparities in all public jobs. María Isabel Salvador, Ecuador's ambassador to the OAS, said cutting police bonuses and seniority pay would save the country $15 million a year.

Correa -- a U.S.-educated populist and ally of Chávez -- has been wrestling with an unruly congress and growing opposition to his government. Last month, former journalist Carlos Vera began collecting signatures to force his recall.

The small Andean nation -- best known for its banana exports and the Galapagos islands -- has a history of political unrest. From 1997 to 2005, three Ecuadorean presidents were either overthrown or impeached.

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