Troops rescue Ecuadoran president from hospital besieged by rebel police
QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuadoran soldiers firing automatic weapons and concussion grenades rescued President Rafael Correa late yesterday from a hospital where he was trapped most of the day by police rebelling over a cut in benefits.
At least one security force member was wounded in the 35-minute operation, and the government said at least one person was killed and six injured in clashes earlier in the day outside the hospital between Correa’s supporters and insurgent cops.
Correa, 47, told cheering supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet palace after being spirited away from the hospital at top speed that the uprising was more than a simple police protest.
“There were lots of infiltrators, dressed as civilians and we know where they were from,’’ he shouted. But he did not blame anyone specifically.
Correa was trapped in the hospital for more than 12 hours after being treated for a tear-gassing that nearly aphyxiated him during a confrontation with hundreds of angry police officers who also shoved him and pelted him with water.
Correa expressed thanks from the balcony to 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 this oil-exporting South American country into chaos, roughing up and tear-gassing Correa, shutting down airports and blocking highways in a nationwide strike.
At the hospital, Correa had vowed to leave either “as president or as a corpse.’’ He also negotiated with some of the insurrectionists, but the outcome of those talks was unclear.
Hours before the rescue, the armed forces chief, General Ernesto Gonzalez, declared the military’s loyalty to Correa. He called for “a reestablishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadorans can resolve our differences.’’
But 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 tires, 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.