QUITO – Rowdy protests by Ecuadorian police unhappy with changes to their pay and benefits turned into a full-blown crisis Thursday as cops besieged President Rafael Correa in a Quito hospital and the government declared a state of emergency in the face of what the head of state called an attempted coup.
Correa, who recently underwent knee surgery, entered the hospital after being injured when mutinous police accosted him and his bodyguards as they tried to leave the main police barracks in the capital after he addressed the disgruntled cops.
“Gentlemen, if you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill me if you want to, kill me if you have courage, instead of being in a crowd, hiding like cowards,” an indignant Correa told the police.
The president then entered the Metropolitan Military Hospital, next to the police barracks, to be treated for an injury to his leg.
He later told state radio by telephone that the mutinous police had surrounded the building and were effectively holding him hostage.
“It is an attempt at a coup d’etat by the opposition and by certain entrenched groups in the armed forces and police that were also there, basically the Sociedad Patriotica group,” Correa said, referring to the political party founded by former President Lucio Gutierrez.
Speaking by telephone from Brazil, Gutierrez, who took office in January 2003 and was ousted by Ecuador’s Congress in April 2005, denied any role in Thursday’s uprising.
Rebellious police also occupied the National Assembly and disturbances spread across Ecuador, prompting presidential aid Alexis Mera to declare a state of emergency giving the armed forces responsibility for both external and internal security.
The head of the armed forces Joint Command, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, went on television Thursday afternoon to call for an end to the mutiny.
“We invite the national police and sectors of civil society, as well as certain elements of the armed forces, to abandon their (aggressive) attitude,” he said.
At the same time, he urged that the legislation which sparked the police uprising “be reviewed or nullified.”
The military, Gonzalez said, is “subordinated to the national interest and also subordinated to the legal, legitimately constituted and maximum authority of the armed forces – the president of the republic.”
Hundreds of Correa partisans gathered in front of the presidential palace, where Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño appeared on a balcony to urge people to rescue Correa from the military hospital.
But when thousands of government supporters approached the hospital in an attempt to break the siege, police repeatedly drove them away with massive volleys of tear gas.
An Efe reporter also witnessed the cops firing rubber bullets at the crowd.
At least one person has died in the violence, Security Minister Miguel Carvajal said, while extending an offer of dialogue with the rebellious police if they stand down.
Inside the hospital, meanwhile, Correa was meeting with representatives of the disgruntled police, the official Andes news agency said.
The police were accompanied by an attorney and Finance Minister Patricio Rivera was also present, the agency said.
Leaders of individual Latin American countries issued statements deploring the uprising and expressing unconditional support for Correa, who first took office in early 2007 and was re-elected in a landslide in 2009 after securing ratification of a new constitution.
The 12-member Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, convened an emergency summit for Friday in Argentina, whose government current occupies the bloc’s rotating presidency.
The presidents of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez; Bolivia, Evo Morales; Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos; Peru, Alan Garcia; and Uruguay, Jose Mujica, confirmed that they would travel to Buenos Aires for the gathering.
At an emergency session in Washington, representatives of the Organization of American States unanimously approved a resolution repudiating any attempt to subvert the democratic order in Ecuador.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero telephoned Correa to convey Spain’s support for Ecuador’s democratic institutions and condemn the police mutiny, officials in Madrid told EFE.