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President of Ecuador ousted


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BOGOTA - Ecuador's Congress dismissed President Lucio Guti?rrez and swore in his vice president Wednesday in a vain effort to halt a week of street protests, which left three dead, over his manipulations of the Supreme Court.


But mobs of Ecuadoreans angry at the country's entire political class besieged the lawmakers and new President Alfredo Palacio. The crowds in Quito threw rocks and set fire to government buildings well into Wednesday evening.


Palacio, a 66-year-old cardiologist, became the seventh president in 10 years of this trouble-plagued nation after 60 members of the 100-seat single-chamber Congress approved a decree stating that Guti?rrez had ''abandoned his post,'' arguing that he had become more of a dictator than president.


''It's an extreme interpretation of the constitution,'' said Victor Albornoz, the director of the Quito think tank known as CORDES. ``[but] no one cares about the constitution anymore.''


The Brazilian Embassy in Quito confirmed Guti?rrez had sought asylum at its residence. Hundreds of people jammed the tarmac of the Quito airport earlier in the day to prevent what they believed to be his plane from taking off.


Acting Attorney General Cecilia de Armas told reporters that she had ordered Guti?rrez detained at a military base because of allegations that he had ordered police and soldiers to crush the anti-government protests. But there was no confirmation.


The former president initially vowed he would not leave office, but a helicopter was observed landing on the roof of the Carondelet presidential palace Wednesday afternoon.




At about the same time, interim Congress Speaker Cyntia Viteri swore in the new president at the same place where the lawmakers had met, a private university in Quito known as CIESPAL. Palacio, who broke with Guti?rrez long ago, promptly bashed his former boss.


''Today, the dictatorship, the immorality, the egotism and the fear have ended,'' Palacio said before promising to focus his administration on social problems facing this largely poor but oil-exporting Andean nation of 13 million people.


The U.S. State Department took a cautious stance on the crisis, declining to endorse the new president as it waited for more information. It simply reiterated statements made before Guti?rrez's ouster, urging Ecuadorean political leaders to resolve their differences peacefully and within the democratic order.


The Organization of American States was to hold an emergency sessions today at its Washington headquarters to discuss the crisis in Ecuador -- which like the forced resignation of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide raised questions about a failure of democracy.


Ecuador's crisis -- which started in December after Congress and Guti?rrez dismissed 27 of 31 Supreme Court justices and replaced them with their own candidates -- began to spiral out of control last week after a Quito radio station, La Luna, called for massive street protests against the president.


Guti?rrez on Friday declared a state of emergency in Quito, dismissed the new justices and then lifted the state of emergency, apparently believing that would mollify the protesters who opposed the new high court. These justices had made controversial decisions clearing some of the president's top allies of corruption charges.




Guti?rrez initially remained barricaded in the presidential palace with several thousand police officers keeping the protesters at bay. On Tuesday, police had repelled an estimated 30,000 protesters with tear gas, reportedly killing a Chilean photographer who was covering the event.


But by Wednesday morning the street demonstrations seemed to be eroding the government's will to fight back. National Police Chief Jorge Poveda resigned, stating, ''I can't see Ecuadoreans fight other Ecuadoreans.'' The armed forces withdrew their support for the president shortly thereafter.


Ecuador's presidency has long been a slippery slope.


In 2000, Guti?rrez, then an army colonel, helped lead a coup that toppled Jamil Mahuad. Now 48, he was elected to a five-year term in 2002 on a leftist-populist platform with the support of a shaky congressional coalition, which quickly fell apart as he adopted conservative economic policies and forged closer relations with Washington.


Despite a rise in oil prices that helped the economy grow by 6 percent last year, his power has steadily eroded and last year, facing impeachment proceedings, Guti?rrez's party made an ill-fated alliance with two former enemies to secure his hold on the office.


Critics say that the deal included reforming the Supreme Court to the liking of his new allies, who included Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate who was facing allegations of tax evasion, and Abdal? Bucaram, the ex-president in exile known as El Loco who was facing charges of corruption.


In 1997, Congress dismissed Bucaram for ``mental incapacity.''




The new Supreme Court overturned Bucaram's case in March, confirming many people's suspicions that a backroom deal had been made between Guti?rrez and Bucaram. Bucaram, and another ex-president and vice president who were also cleared by the court, returned to the country earlier this month.




The mantle of the presidency will not fall easily on Alfredo Palacio, who has little political experience aside from a two-year stint as the public health minister a decade ago, and reportedly has ties to two traditional political parties at the center of the current turmoil.


''He has no support from the public,'' said Fernando Bustamante, a professor at the San Francisco University in Quito, about Palacio. ``The people realize that this is more of the same. That's why they're still on the streets.''


Herald Special correspondent Carla Bass contributed from Quito, and Staff Writer Pablo Bachelet contributed from Washington.



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