QUITO - Ecuador was plunged into political crisis Thursday as troops seized the country's main airport and stormed the Congress building in what President Rafael Correa denounced as an attempted coup.
About 150 renegade troops seized a runway at Ecuador's international airport in the capital of the South American nation, as dozens of police protested on the streets against a new law which would strip them of some pay bonuses. Dozens of police units took over government buildings in the country's other two main cities, Guayaquil and Cuenca, and Foreign Minister Ricardo Pitino blamed the insurrection on "sectors aiming to overthrow the government."
The uprising occurred as Correa was in the hospital recovering from an operation on his knee, and the president said he was seeking refuge in the building fearing for his life. "It is a coup attempt led by the opposition and certain sections of the armed forces and the police," Correa told local television. "Whatever happens to me I want to express my love for my family and my homeland." Correa charged some police had tried to storm his hospital room Thursday.
The Ecuadoran leader has vowed he will not bow in face of the protests, as the army chief threw his weight behind the Ecuadoran leader and vowed to restore order. "No, I will not step back, if they want to seize the barracks, if they want to leave the citizens defenseless and betray their mission," Correa said earlier in a speech to soldiers from Quito's main regiment.
The largest demonstrations erupted in Quito where tear gas was used to try to disperse the crowds. "The troops united will never be defeated," the demonstrators chanted, with some calling on the troops to join in the demonstrations. But army chief Ernesto Gonzalez on Thursday threw his full support behind Correa, who was said to be considering dissolving Congress and holding snap elections to resolve the political crisis. "We live in a state which is governed by laws, and we are subordinate to the highest authority which is the president of the republic," Gonzalez told a press conference. "We will take whatever appropriate action the government decides on," he added.
Police chief Freddy Martinez also rushed to the scene of the demonstrations to call for calm, but was met with a hostile reception.
The leftist Correa was re-elected last year to a second term as president of the country of some 14.5 million people, which is bordered by Colombia and Peru. International election observers at the time criticized Correa's "dominant" media presence in the run up to the vote, which they said had damaged the poll's fairness. Since first coming to power in 2006, Correa has proven controversial because of his close ties to regional leftists like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The US-educated economist took a tough stance with investors and refused to repay foreign debt, in moves welcomed by supporters who blamed the effects of the economic crisis on foreign liberalism.
Correa had nearly two years left of his current term, but a new constitution approved in 2008 let him bid to start over again. Correa promised to pursue popular social programs funded by oil wealth in the OPEC nation where 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. His reelection was seen as giving some stability to the world's top banana exporter that has seen three of its previous presidents -- between 1996 and 2006 -- ousted before the end of their terms.