Ecuadorean soldiers stormed a police hospital Thursday night in Quito where President Rafael Correa was held by rebellious elements of the police forces, and rescued him amid an exchange of gunfire in an effort to end a tense standoff between Mr. Correa and hundreds of protesting police officers and military personnel.
Speaking shortly after the rescue operation, which involved about 500 soldiers who entered the hospital grounds wearing gas masks, Mr. Correa delivered a fiery speech from the balcony of the presidential palace and blamed “infiltrated elements” of the security forces for the day’s events.
It was unclear if anyone died during the rescue, although Mr. Correa said that at least five people had been wounded.
The operation came during a state of emergency declared Thursday in Ecuador after Mr. Correa was caught at one point earlier in the day in an angry scrum of officers at a barracks in the Quito and was physically assaulted. He was tear-gassed, shoved, insulted and pelted with water, and emerged gasping for air.
He sought refuge in the police hospital, which was surrounded by protesting officers. Speaking to the news media by telephone, the president said that he was “practically captive,” while hundreds of his supporters marched on the police compound, demanding his release.
He called the protests “an attempt at a coup d’état” and lashed out at the protesting officers as “a bunch of ungrateful bandits.”
Striking police officers also occupied the National Assembly, where hundreds of Mr. Correa’s supporters gathered outside.
However, it was not clear on Thursday night whether the police officers, who were protesting a new law that would reduce their benefits and slow salary increases, also sought control of the government.
The standoff arose after security forces took over barracks in several cities to protest the law, part of a broader project to rein in government spending. Some members of the air force joined the protests in Quito, blocking the airstrip at the international airport and preventing planes from landing or taking off.
Miguel Carvajal, the minister in charge of internal security issues, said at least one person had been killed and several injured.
In the security vacuum created by protesting officers, sporadic robberies were reported at supermarkets and at banks, in the capital and in Guayaquil, a large coastal commercial city. Retail businesses and schools shut down.
Mr. Correa had gone to the barracks to address the police complaints in person. A shouting match ensued, and at one point, he loosened his tie and opened his shirt as if to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. “If you want to kill the president, here he is,” he said. “Kill him, if you want to. Kill him if you are brave enough.”
The military leadership appeared to support the president. Gen. Ernesto González, the highest-ranking military official, called on the protesting police officers and troops to stand down. “We are a state of law,” he said in comments broadcast on Ecuadorean radio. “We are subordinated to the maximum authority, which is the president of the republic.”
Leaders from across the hemisphere expressed support for Mr. Correa, 47. The White House expressed support for Mr. Correa and urged a peaceful end to the crisis. “The United States deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and for the institutions of democratic government in that country,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement.
The chaos raised new doubts over the stability of a country that had churned through eight different presidencies in the decade before Mr. Correa was first elected in 2006. Since then, Ecuador has enjoyed relative calm, and Mr. Correa’s leftist agenda of increased state control of the oil industry and welfare programs for the poor proved popular enough that he was re-elected in 2009.
But his approval ratings recently slipped amid protests over his efforts to reorganize the federal bureaucracy. NYT