Ecuadorian soldiers rescue president

Soldiers firing automatic weapons and concussion grenades rescued Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa late Thursday from a hospital where he was trapped most of the day by police rebelling over a cut in benefits.
A police officer demonstrates next to a bonfire in Quito during a protest by police against a new law that cuts their benefits. ((Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press))

Soldiers firing automatic weapons and concussion grenades rescued Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa late Thursday from a hospital where he was trapped most of the day by police rebelling over a cut in benefits.

At least one security force member was wounded in the 35-minute operation, and the government said at least one person was killed and six injured in clashes between Correa's supporters and insurgent cops earlier in the day outside the hospital.

The uprising was more than a simple police protest, Correa, 47, told cheering supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet palace after being spirited away from the hospital at top speed in an SUV.

"There were lots of infiltrators, dressed as civilian, and we know where they were from," he shouted. But he did not blame anyone specifically.

Correa was trapped in the hospital for more than 12 hours after being treated for a tear-gassing that nearly aphyxiated him during a confrontation with hundreds of police officers who also shoved him and pelted him with water.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa speaks to supporters from a balcony at the government palace in Quito. ((Patricio Realpe/Associated Press))

Correa expressed thanks from the balcony to all his supporters who went to the hospital and "were ready to die to defend democracy."

Earlier, the government of Ecuador declared a state of siege Thursday after rebellious police angered by a law that cuts their benefits plunged the small South American country into chaos.

The state of siege puts the military in charge of public order, suspending civil liberties and allowing soldiers to carry out searches without a warrant.

Hundreds of officers involved in the insurrection took over police barracks in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities. Some set up roadblocks of burning tires, cutting off highway access to the capital.

Schools shut down in Quito and many businesses closed early due to the absence of police protection that left citizens and businesses vulnerable to crime.

Looting was reported in the capital, where at least two banks were sacked, and in the coastal city of Guayaquil. That city's main newspaper, El Universo, reported attacks on supermarkets and robberies due to the absence of police.

Hundreds of Correa supporters gathered outside the National Assembly, which was occupied by striking police.

The commander of Ecuador's armed forces, Gen. Ernesto Gonzalez, later declared the military's loyalty to Correa in a televised statement. He called for "a re-establishment of dialogue, which is the only way Ecuadorians can resolve our differences."

When Correa confronted the protesters earlier, he was agitated and unyielding.

"If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me!" he told them before limping away with the aid of a cane as an aide fitted a gas mask over his face. Correa's right knee was operated on just last week.

It was not immediately clear how much of the police force had joined the protest, which appeared to have arisen spontaneously.

There were no reports of serious violence.

Unrest 'an attempted coup': president

But Correa called the unrest "an attempted coup by the opposition," speaking to reporters by telephone from the hospital where he said he was hooked to an intravenous drip.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, right, tried to speak with a group of police protesters but was shouted down. ((Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press))

There was no immediate evidence the police uprising was organized by the opposition and no protest leaders emerged to denounce the government.

Correa's leftist ally, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, claimed that Correa was "in danger of being killed" by police who were preventing him from leaving the police hospital where he spent all day after the morning tumult.

Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said at one point that insurgents were trying to enter the hospital through the roof and called on supporters to march on the hospital to rescue Correa.

"They are trying to oust President Correa," Chavez said via Twitter. That claim was echoed by Cuba.

Peru's president, Alan Garcia, said he was shutting his country's border with Ecuador until Correa's "democratic authority" was re-established.

Other leaders in the region expressed firm support for Correa, as did the Organization of American States. Its secretary general, Miguel Insulza, called the situation "a coup d'état in the making."

Washington's OAS ambassador, Carmen Lomellin, did not go that far. She said the U.S. "condemns any attempt to violate or alter the democratic process and constitutional order in Ecuador."

Although there was no evidence of opposition ties to the police protesters, Ecuador's ambassador to the OAS, Maria Isabel Salvador, alleged involvement by "opposition politicians with military backgrounds and police ties."

The striking police were angered by a law passed by Congress on Wednesday that would end the practice of giving members of Ecuador's military and police medals and bonuses with each promotion. It would also extend from five to seven years the usual period required for a subsequent promotion.