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Sacked Ecuadorean leader hides in Brazil’s embassy

Former Ecuadorean president Lucio Gutierrez was waiting on Thursday for permission to leave for political asylum in Brazil, after Congress sacked him for violently crushing a demonstration and swore in Vice-President Alfredo Palacio to replace him as head of state.

The third Ecuadorean president ousted from office in the past eight years, Gutierrez was holed up at the Brazilian embassy in Quito after demonstrators on Wednesday prevented him taking off in his private jet at Quito’s main airport.

Brazil has granted his request for political asylum, but his flight out of Quito has yet to be arranged with Ecuador’s new government, officials said.

The embattled Gutierrez left the Carondelet presidential palace just as Palacio was being sworn in as president by Congress, one hour after 60 out of 62 lawmakers voted to oust Gutierrez on constitutional grounds that he was in dereliction of duty.

If there were any doubts in Gutierrez’s mind about complying with the vote, they were soon dispelled when all three branches of the armed forces issued a statement endorsing his ouster.

“Ecuador’s armed forces, respecting the presidential succession, call for calm and peace in the country,” the statement read.

Police and soldiers were later seen dismantling barricades and leaving the area around the presidential palace they were protecting from demonstrators.

Palacio, who soon after his election on Gutierrez’s ticket in November 2002 was at odds with his boss and had lately been asking that he step down, vowed to wipe the slate clean now that he holds the top job.

“Today the arrogance and fear have ended. Today, our nation resumes the path of dignity and hope,” said the left-wing, 65-year-old cardiologist after he was sworn in.

Late on Wednesday, Palacio met with reporters at the defence ministry, flanked by the country’s top military brass.

Outside Congress, hundreds of people gathered overnight demanding that all 100 members of Congress resign and that Palacio convene general elections.

The new president said disbanding Congress would be “a dictatorial action” and a violation of the Constitution, something with which he would never agree. However, he said he would not mind seeing lawmakers submit to a “self-purging process”.

Palacio also said he will consider holding a referendum on some issues he consider crucial to the future of Ecuador. He did not elaborate, but said the doors of the presidential palace will be open to anybody with suggestions on how to improve the government.

Gutierrez, a retired colonel best known for being one of the leaders of a coup that ousted elected president Jamil Mahuad in 2000, had seen his authority undermined by days of street protests for his resignation. At least two people were killed and 100 others injured during the demonstrations that ended violently in clashes with police.

Gutierrez had repeatedly refused to step down, insisting that the protests were financed by business tycoons.

Worried by the mounting turmoil, the United States ambassador to Ecuador, Kristie Kenney, met with Gutierrez at the presidential palace before the president fled.

In Washington, a US official questioned the legality of Ecuador’s transfer of power.

“There are some constitutional questions,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding: “We are following developments very closely.”

The political turmoil began in December after Gutierrez asked the legislature to dismiss 27 of 31 Supreme Court justices, a move seen by opponents as an attempt to consolidate power.

Discontent spread rapidly over the new Supreme Court’s decisions not to put on trial former presidents Abdala Bucaram, who governed Ecuador from 1996 to 1997 and who was dismissed for mental incapacity, and Gustavo Noboa, president from 2000 to 2003.

In April, the court allowed the two former leaders, both Gutierrez allies, to return to Ecuador from their exile in Panama and the Dominican Republic.

There was also widespread discontent over the performance of Gutierrez, who rode to power with the support of indigenous groups. Rather than the economic and social reforms he promised, Gutierrez has applied austerity policies supported by the International Monetary Fund. — AFP

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