QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuadorean soldiers firing automatic weapons and concussion grenades rescued President Rafael Correa late Thursday from a hospital where he was trapped most of the day by rebellious police who plunged the country into chaos in a protest over benefit cuts.
At least five soldiers were wounded by gunfire in the 35-minute firefight, the military command said, while the security minister said at least one person was killed and six injured earlier in the day as Correa’s supporters clashed with insurgent cops outside the hospital.
Correa, 47, told cheering backers from the balcony of the Carondelet palace after being spirited away from the hospital in an SUV at top speed that the uprising was not a simple police insurrection over pay-related grievances but an attempt to overthrow him.
“There were lots of infiltrators, dressed as civilian and we know where they were from,” shouted the U.S.-trained leftist economist. But he did not blame anyone specifically.
Correa said those responsible for the rebellion would be punished.
“There will be no pardon,” he said.
Dramatic live images of the rescue broadcast by Ecuadorean TV stations showed one helmeted soldier dressed in black and wearing a flak jacket as he was apparently hit by a bullet and tumbled down a small embankment outside the hospital. The Red Cross said at least one civilian was wounded.
Correa had been trapped for more than 12 hours in the hospital, where he was being treated for a tear-gassing that nearly asphyxiated him when he went to meet with angry police officers. Officers at the barracks also roughed him up and pelted him with water.
Correa expressed thanks from the balcony to all the supporters who went to the hospital “ready to die to defend democracy.” They ensured that “our citizen’s revolution can’t be halted by anyone,” he said.
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.
The unrest began when hundreds of police angry over the new civil service law shut down airports, blocking highways in a nationwide strike, prompting citizens to shutter businesses and schools and triggering looting.
The government responded by 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.
Peru and Colombia closed their countries’ borders with Ecuador in solidarity with Correa. Along with the rest of the region’s leaders and the United States, they expressed firm support for Correa. Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, summoned South America’s presidents to an emergency meeting set for Friday in Buenos Aires of the continent’s fledgling UNASUR defence union.
The U.S. Embassy issued a message warning U.S. citizens to “stay in their homes or current location, if safe.”
Hours before Correa’s rescue, the armed forces chief, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, declared the military’s loyalty to the president. He called for “a re-establishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadoreans can resolve our differences.”
But he 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.”
Congress approved the law on Wednesday and it has not taken effect because it must first be published.
This poor Andean nation of 14 million people had a history of political instability before Correa, cycling through eight presidents in a decade before he first won election in December 2006. Three of those presidents were driven from office by street protests that plagued the country, which is a member of OPEC.
Like his leftist ally, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Correa has drastically cut royalties to multinational oil companies in favour of his people, discouraging direct foreign investment while courting such nations as Iran and Russia.
In April 2009, after voters approved a new constitution he championed, Correa became Ecuador’s first president to win election without a runoff. That success has led him at times to act with overconfidence.
Confronting the protesters Thursday morning, Correa was agitated and unyielding.
“If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me!” he told them before limping away with the aid of a cane as an aide fitted a gas mask over his face. Correa’s right knee, with which he has had recurring problems, was operated on last week.
Some 800 police officers in Quito joined the protest, which appeared to have arisen spontaneously. The number of participants outside the capital was unclear. Ecuador has 40,000 police officers.
While at the hospital, Correa called the unrest “an attempted coup” spurred by opponents. “They’re practically holding the president captive,” he said.
Chavez, who said he spoke several times with the sequestered Correa, claimed the Ecuadorean leader was “in danger of being killed.” Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said at one point that insurgents were trying to enter the hospital through the roof.
The Organization of American States’ secretary-general, Miguel Insulza, called the situation “a coup d’etat in the making.”
The United States didn’t go that far.
“We urge all Ecuadoreans to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador’s democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.
The striking police were angered by a law passed by Congress on Wednesday that would end the practice of giving members of Ecuador’s military and police medals and bonuses with each promotion. It would also extend from five to seven years the usual period required for a subsequent promotion.
“They are a bunch of ungrateful bandits,” Correa said of the protesters after they set upon him.
He said the new law “is removing bonus payments and decorations from the entire public sector … to prevent abuses of state money. We know the Ecuadorean people support us in all this.”
Correa said at the palace that he asked the rebelling police if they had read the law and none had. He said they had fallen victim to rumour and lies spread by hostile media.
In fact, the law will provide police with better salaries, he said.
Air force troops shut down Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport as the protests began Thursday morning. Dozens of flights were cancelled and it was unclear when international service would be restored to the Quito, Guayaquil and Manta airports.
The head of Ecuador’s civil aviation authority, Fernando Guerrero, said in a statement that international operations were suspended at the latter two airports “due to the lack of immigration and counternarcotics personnel.”