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Tanks Shoot Their Way into Air Base of Rebellious General

March 15, 1986

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) _ Government soldiers backed by tanks and cannon recaptured an air base Friday that had been seized by the fired armed forces chief. The renegade general was found hiding and was arrested, officials said.

Government press spokesman Galo Franco said Gen. Frank Vargas was captured inside a building at the Quito air base, where he hid for six hours after 2,000 soldiers recaptured it from Vargas.

Government spokesman Patricio Quevedo said that Vargas, who seized the air base Thursday night and called on his supporters to march on the government palace to restore ″true social democracy,″ was taken by helicopter to an undisclosed military facility. He said Vargas did not resist arrest once he was found by government soldiers.

However, press reports said Vargas did resist, firing a submachine gun and wounding three soldiers, then quickly surrendered when he ran out of bullets.

Earlier, Quevedo said in a statement broadcast over all radio stations, under government control as part of a state of emergency, that four people were killed and nine were wounded during the attack on the base.

The dead included two soldiers loyal to the government and two civilians killed under unclear circumstances, he said. Two soldiers loyal to Vargas and seven government soldiers were reported wounded.

Quevedo said the attack was planned to ″reduce to the minimum the number of victims. Orders were given to shoot into the air, not at bodies.″

Radio Quito earlier reported government troops took about 400 prisoners.

Before the battle Vargas had told a news conference President Leon Febres Cordero should resign and turn over power to the vice president.

″I am determined to continue despite the differences (in forces), since outside they have tanks, heavy arms, which should be used to defend national sovereignty,″ Vargas said.

Radio Quito had reported earlier that Vargas, who was air force chief until Febres Cordero fired him for insubordination a week ago, fled the base at 11:50 a.m., just before the attack in a gray pickup truck.

The radio said Vargas had the support of troops at the Manta air base, where he began his rebellion last week.

Three tanks entered the Quito air base after a 20-minute gun battle with rebel troops, according to journalists on the scene. They said at least 2000 soldiers took part in the assault, with armored personnel carriers and about 20 tanks.

Witnesses said residents in the area were evacuated.

Vargas, 51, rebelled March 7 after Febres Cordero dismissed him for demanding the resignation of the defense minister and army commander, accusing them of fraud in the use of public funds.

Luis Pineiros, the defense minister, and Gen. Manuel Albuja, the army commander, resigned Thursday, apparently meeting Vargas’ demands.

Vargas surrendered Tuesday and was taken from Manta to the base in Quito, but claimed the government broke the surrender agreement. He was freed Thursday by sympathetic officers and took over the base.

Vargas, known in government circles as ″El loco Vargas″ (the crazy Vargas), was a general in his capacity as Joint Armed Forces Chief, but he was a lieutenant general of the air force.

Vargas wanted his military rank upgraded to general of the air force before he retired this month. Ecuador’s air force has never had a general as its chief, and military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity say this led to Vargas’ rebellion.

Febres Cordero, 55, imposed a state of emergency Friday that suspended constitutional guarantees and established censorship on ‴all communications media that attempt to subvert the order.″

Ecuador was ruled by the military for nine years before civilian rule was restored in 1979.

When he surrendered Tuesday at Manta, Vargas said he had the president’s ″word of honor″ he would be tried by a military court of generals and admirals.

After renewing his rebellion, Vargas said presidential adviser Carlos Pareja had promised him ″freedom and the imprisonment of Pineiros and Albuja,″ but they were ″talking freely while I am held incomunicado.″

In Washington, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said, ″We condemn any challenge to that democratically elected government outside the constitutional order of Ecuador.″