QUITO – Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa told foreign ministers from across South America that an uprising by disgruntled police officers earlier this week was an attempted coup and that, when that strategy failed, “plan B” was to kill him.
The leftist leader spoke on Friday to the foreign ministers of Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, member countries about being effectively held hostage the day before at a hospital, where rebellious police angered about changes to their benefits lay siege to the building for 12 hours before army and police special forces rescued him.
During an emergency meeting in Quito, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, as well as delegates from Brazil and Guyana, condemned the attempted coup in Ecuador and expressed their intention to draw up a statute to combat these types of attacks on the democratic order.
Correa, who recently underwent knee surgery, entered the hospital Thursday morning 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.
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.
“This incident was not an isolated incident and for that reason the masterminds and perpetrators of this attempted coup should not receive any protection from Unasur member countries,” Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said in a statement that summarized the sentiments of his colleagues.
The ministers gathered Friday at the Carondelet presidential palace in downtown Quito listened to Correa give his account as witness and victim of the latest attempted putsch in the region.
The president said the Ecuadorian people and loyal police and army soldiers managed to rescue him from the siege at a police hospital and thwart the designs of the mutinous cops.
Nevertheless, he said “there is nothing to celebrate (in Ecuador) ... It’s a day of mourning for the fatherland” because at least four people died, including a university student shot in the head, in the clashes outside the hospital during the rescue operation.
“The attempted coup failed (and) we’ve had the support of the world” in condemning the police uprising, Correa said, adding that a convincing victory was scored against the “enemies of democracy.”
“But much more was lost” and the country’s democratic stability was at stake, according to Correa, who has blamed the political party founded by former President Lucio Gutierrez for the uprising.
Speaking by telephone Thursday from Brazil, Gutierrez, who took office in January 2003 and was ousted by Ecuador’s Congress in April 2005, denied any role in the rebellion and said Correa is to blame for heightened tensions in the country.
Correa thanked police loyal to his government for their role in squashing the uprising, saying they were the main target of the wrath of their rebellious colleagues.
He also praised the international community for unanimously rejecting the attempted coup.
According to the president, those behind the rebellion wanted to provoke a general uprising amid the country’s security forces and spark social chaos.
However, that destabilization strategy failed and so “plan B was to kill the president,” said Correa, who noted that he heard those threats on several occasions while he was trapped at the hospital.
He also told the ministers that at one moment he refused an apparent offer by the rebellious police to free him when he saw the overture was a trap to kill him and make it look like he was caught in a crossfire.
During the dramatic military rescue, the SUV used to remove Correa from the hospital was hit with rifle fire, with some of the bullets striking the part of the vehicle where the president was presumably sitting, the head of state said.
The armored vehicle withstood the impact of the bullets.
Separately, the Ecuadorian government announced late Friday the replacement of the entire top police brass following the uprising.
Freddy Martinez resigned as National Police chief and will be replaced by Patricio Franco, Interior Minister Gustavo Jalkh said.
Meanwhile, three police colonels – Manuel Rivadeneira, Julio Cesar Cueva and Marcelo Echeverria – are the first suspects to be arrested for their alleged role in the uprising.
A total of eight people were killed and 274 people were wounded in disturbances nationwide linked to the uprising, the Health Ministry said Friday.
Presidents of the Unasur member countries, gathered in the wee hours of Friday in Buenos Aires, issued a resounding condemnation of the attempted coup and a warning to those contemplating future bids to unseat elected governments in the region.
For Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a close Correa ally who was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, the bloc’s response set an important precedent against impunity.
“The coup in Honduras – where President Mel Zelaya was ousted in June 2009 – went unpunished. How much damage it is doing us, the impunity for those involved in coups,” the Venezuelan leader said at the close of the Buenos Aires meeting.