Ecuadorean troops stormed a hospital in Quito late on Thursday and rescued President Rafael Correa, who was trapped inside for hours by renegade police protesting at government austerity measures.
Two policemen died in the violent end to a stand-off that shook the South American nation and brought a torrent of international condemnation from the White House to Havana.
The drama began when dissident police attacked Correa during protests over proposed cuts to bonuses and a freezing of promotions. He took refuge in a nearby hospital and accused opponents of trying to topple him in a coup.
Though some soldiers joined the protests, the military top brass stayed loyal and Correa was rescued amid a blaze of gunfire shown live on television around the world.
“What loyalty, what support,” an emotional Correa (47) shouted after returning triumphantly to address cheering crowds from the balcony of his presidential palace in Quito, the capital.
“This will serve as an example for those who want to stop the revolution not through the ballot box but with weapons.”
The US-trained economist and close ally of Venezuela’s socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez took power in 2007, alienating foreign investors but winning approval ratings with populist policies like greater state control over natural resources.
Correa has steadily accumulated more power, but Thursday’s chaos — the most serious challenge to his rule since he took office in 2007 — was a stark reminder of the Opec nation’s volatile history of economic crises and coups.
Street protests toppled three presidents in the decade before Correa took power, but none of them enjoyed the popular support that he does.
Correa irked foreign capital markets two years ago when his government defaulted on $3,2-billion in global bonds. Cash has been tight since as the nation relies on multilateral loans and bilateral lending to meet international financing needs.
Police angered by the cut-backs led Thursday’s protests, and some soldiers joined in. A group of troops seized Quito’s main international airport, halting flights for several hours.
Earlier on Thursday, Correa said he and his wife were jostled and stunned by an exploding tear gas canister as he tried to speak to the demonstrators. Witnesses and local media said Correa was also hit by a flying object in the melee.
‘We never gave in’
But there was no sign of popular support for the protests.
In jubilant scenes at the palace on Thursday night, Correa said he had no words to thank his supporters and was relieved not to have buckled to pressure like some of his predecessors.
“We never gave in, we never agreed to negotiate anything. Under pressure, nothing,” he said.
One member of the security forces lay in the street outside the hospital, apparently wounded, as Correa was being rescued, while soldiers with shields ran over to help him and a voice called out over a loudspeaker: “Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot!”
Witnesses said shooting continued at the hospital after the president had been rushed to safety in a convoy.
The local Red Cross said at least 88 people were injured during the day’s unrest.
The United Nations and governments across the Americas had thrown their support behind Correa, with Washington backing him and calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Fellow leftist allies like Venezuela and Cuba issued strong statements condemning the actions against Correa.
Global oil prices rose to a seven-week high of near $80 a barrel, partly due to the turmoil in Opec’s smallest member.
Correa is looking at the option of dissolving Congress, where half the 124 members are officially allied with him, but elements of his left-wing Country Alliance party are blocking budget proposals aimed at cutting state costs.
Ecuador’s two-year-old Constitution lets the president declare an impasse, dissolve Congress and rule by decree until a new presidential and parliamentary election. But that move would still need to be approved by the Constitutional Court. – Reuters