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Ecuador President Abandons Palace

January 22, 2000

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) _ Thousands of protesters surrounded Ecuador’s national palace on Friday night, hours after a rebellion led by Indians and backed by the military forced Ecuador’s unpopular president to flee.

President Jamil Mahuad insisted he would not resign _ but he abandoned the palace where he worked and lived in the afternoon after refusing a request from the military high command to step down.

Thousands of people streamed onto the plaza in front of the national palace, mingling with soldiers in combat gear and celebrating, some by waving the red flag of an extreme-left party.

The military high command was meeting at the national palace with a three-man governing council named by Indian protesters, apparently to determine the final makeup of the new government.

The gathering at the place followed a day of political chaos, with Indians demanding Mahuad’s resignation and forcing their way into Congress and the Supreme Court. After first backing Mahuad, the military later in the day decided to support the protest, saying it was the only way to prevent ``a social explosion.″

Mahuad refused to step down, saying during a nationwide television broadcast that anyone who wanted to overthrow him would have to do it by force. Late Friday, Interior Minister Vladimiro Alvarez said in a television interview that ``the president has no intention of leaving the country.″

Ecuador’s economic woes appear to have led to the unusual Indian uprising. Last year, inflation reached 60 percent, the highest in Latin America, and only one in three in the labor force has full-time work. A vast majority of the nation’s 4 million Indians live in poverty.

At an emergency meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, Ecuador’s ambassador, Patricio Vivanco, said Mahuad had abandoned the presidential palace in Quito and taken refuge at a military base in the city.

The OAS unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the attempt to overthrow the government and expressed full support for Mahuad.

South American leaders also lined up in support of Mahuad, issuing statements condemning attempts to oust him. A statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, urged Ecuador’s armed forces and police to uphold Mahuad.

``Whatever regime arises from this unconstitutional process will confront political and economic isolation, bringing more misery to the Ecuadorean people,″ the statement said.

Earlier in the day in Quito, guards stepped aside when hundreds of Indians accompanied by an unknown number of military officers stormed an empty Congress building, seized the podium and announced that they had created their own ``Parliament of the People.″ Military leaders said 120 officers were involved in the rebellion, along with an undetermined number of troops.

While downtown Quito during the day was in chaos _ with Indians armed with rocks and clubs paralyzing traffic and menacing pedestrians _ most of the country and much of the city seemed unfazed and Mahuad said he had no intention of stepping down.

``I am not going to abandon you,″ Mahuad, 50, said his nationwide television broadcast, his only public appearance of the day.

``If you want to take power through force, gentlemen, take power through force,″ he said, directing his comments to the military high command, which only a few minutes before had asked him to resign.

Later, Mahuad left the national palace with close aides and was being protected by several military officers.

With no real agreement between the military and the Indian confederation, which claims to represent Ecuador’s Indians, it was unclear who would take power even if Mahuad agreed to resign.

The actions by the armed forces seemed more a result of their growing impatience with Mahuad’s inability to handle the Indian rebellion, which was part of a month of broader protests. They backed the attempted takeover mainly to prevent ``a social explosion,″ said Gen. Carlos Mendoza, who was joint military commander until becoming defense minister last week.

``We are conscious that we must maintain order and discipline in the country,″ he said.

Two men were killed and eight were wounded by gunfire during protests and looting in Quito, Guayaquil, and two smaller cities, the Red Cross said. The two men who were killed were shot by merchants while allegedly looting a public market in Portoviejo.

Earlier in the day in Guayaquil, 165 miles southwest of the capital, a group of leftist-led unions, student organizations and neighborhood associations seized the provincial government building.

The protesters are also upset about Mahuad’s plans to scrap Ecuador’s currency for the dollar.

In becoming the first South American country seeking to adopt the greenback, Ecuador was hoping to curb inflation, bring down interest rates to U.S. levels and spur investment to end the country’s deep recession.

Critics contended that Mahuad’s decision to establish the conversion rate at 25,000 sucres to the dollar would have devastating repercussions for the thousands of Ecuadoreans whose savings are in sucres. A year ago, the sucre was valued at 7,000 to the dollar.

The vast majority of Ecuador’s Indians live in the Andean highlands and speak Quichua, a dialect of the language spoken by the Incas.

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