Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa reasserted control over the country on Friday, and his disgraced police chief resigned after officers’ protests at spending cuts rattled the left-wing leader, who accused foes of an assassination bid.
Police commander Freddy Martinez took responsibility for a revolt by his officers on Thursday, when Correa was physically attacked and trapped in a hospital for several hours before troops rescued him in a blaze of gunfire. Eight people died in unrest across the country.
“A commander shown such lack of respect by his subordinates cannot stay in charge,” Martinez said.
Television station Ecuavisa said three senior police officers were detained.
Police officers began to return to work on Friday, a new police chief was named and three days of mourning was declared. The army increased security in streets around the presidential palace and soldiers helped guard banks to prevent looting.
Three presidents were ousted by popular protests in the decade before Correa took office in 2007, and for a few hours on Thursday it appeared he might be next. More instability in the oil exporter could dent investor confidence already knocked by Correa’s tough stance with the private sector.
“This was coordinated to create chaos, civil war, killings, to destabilize the government. They have not succeeded,” Correa told visiting foreign ministers from across the region in a meeting broadcast on state TV, calling it an attempted coup.
“Personally, I am devastated and the nation is in mourning,” he added, saying opponents had infiltrated the police with paramilitaries and snipers.
The fiery 47-year-old leader had expressed contempt for the rebel police officers’ complaints over proposed cuts to bonuses when he addressed supporters after his rescue by troops.
State media said Correa’s vehicle was hit by bullets as soldiers took him out of the hospital on Thursday night.
“They wanted to kill the president,” Correa told state television, which broadcast footage of bullet holes in his armored pickup.
TV footage showed an elite policeman guarding Correa being fatally shot as he held onto the vehicle, then slumping onto the tarmac.
Correa’s relationship with the armed forces has been mixed, and the unrest on Thursday could force a delicate line handling the military, which has helped topple governments in the past.
Some rank-and-file soldiers joined the protest, shutting the main airport, but the military top brass stood by Correa.
Correa is expected to purge rebel officers from police ranks. Under the two-year-old Constitution, he could also dissolve Congress and rule by decree, calling elections to try to solidify his power. He may prefer to let things cool first.
Correa, a close friend of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is part of the bloc of Latin American leaders fiercely critical of US policy, and he alienated investors when his government defaulted on US$3.2 billion in global bonds,
Correa remains popular at home and won support across the region on Thursday, from the White House to Havana. Top South American envoys arrived in Quito on Friday. Even critics said it was important for Latin America and the US to stand behind democratically elected leaders.
Ecuadoreans were relieved the crisis did not spill into wider bloodshed, and many called for Correa to seek dialogue.