Emergency called after army urges end to crisis and "El Loco" digs in

 

A STATE of emergency was declared in Ecuador last night as fresh street protests and general mayhem gripped the nation a day after Congress voted to oust President Abdala Bucaram for mental incompetence.

Support for Mr Bucaram, nicknamed El Loco (The Madman), came last night from President Carlos Menem of Argentina.

The Defence Minister, Mr Victor Bayas, announced the state of emergency on behalf of President Bucaram. It suspends the right to hold public demonstrations and other individual guarantees, in a terse statement on national TV.

His statement came shortly after hundreds of riot police fired tear gas into a crowd of about 5,000 demonstrators in Quito's colonial city centre to prevent them from marching on Independence Square, just outside the ornate Carondelet presidential palace.

But later at least one person was killed in pitched battles that erupted between protesters and police guarding the palace. The disturbances erupted after acting, President Fabian Alarcon urged about demonstrators to join him in an attempt to take the palace.

Mr Alarcon had urged Ecuador's military to join in his march on the palace, but police and army troops responded with force when he and his supporters sought to breech their lines.

Three politicians were claiming the presidency of Ecuador yesterday after Congress voted to oust President Bucaram (44), who defiantly refused to step down.

Mr Bucaram was voted out of office on Thursday night on grounds of mental incompetence by an extraordinary session of Congress. The vote was taken in the midst of a 48 hour nationwide general strike protesting at tough austerity measures. Congress then swore in its leader, Mr Alarcon (50), to replace him as interim president as Mr Bucaram vowed to serve out his term.

The military said the vice president, Ms Rosalia Arteaga, had also declared her own right to the presidency.

After demonstrators on Thursday night demanded Mr Bucaram's departure, 2,000 troops guarded the Carondelet palace as the president remained inside.

Ecuador's military called yesterday for a quick solution to the crisis. "This situation, which is extremely grave for our life as a nation, has caused uncertainty and a terrible sense of unease in the democratic minded armed forces," military chiefs said. A statement was read at a pre dawn news conference by the armed forces chief, Gen Paco Moncayo, after he and other senior military officers met Mr Bucaram.

Gen Moncayo said the military was "absolutely apolitical" and would not seek to fill the yawning power vacuum created by Mr Bucaram's removal.

It said the military, which ruled Ecuador for seven years until 1979, could mediate an end to the political infighting. "Unity between the people and armed forces can help us overcome this critical hour," the statement said.

Calling Thursday night's 44-34 vote deposing him for mental incompetence an act of judicial barbarity, Mr Bucaram said he had no intention of leaving the job to which he was popularly elected just six months ago.

Argentina's Foreign Ministry said in a statement "President Menem expresses his firmest support for the constitutionally elected president of Ecuador, Abdala Bucaram, trusting in the prompt resolution of the challenges facing that country, with which Argentina maintains ties of brotherly friendship."

Before yesterday's talks with the military Mr Bucaram said: "The power of businessmen and the power of bankers. . will never be as powerful as the constitution," suggesting that the attempt to depose him had been engineered by Ecuador's economic elite. "I am the only president elected by the poor and people of Ecuador," he said.

Mr Bucaram dismissed Mr Alarcon as a member of a "congressional dictatorship" that had failed to pull off an "anti democratic" grab for power.