QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador’s government extended a state of alert on Tuesday and soldiers replaced the police as the force that guards Congress after a deadly revolt by some officers last week over a new law cutting their bonuses.
Angry police took to the streets in the volatile OPEC-member country last Thursday, holding President Rafael Correa in a hospital for hours until he was rescued by army commandos in a hail of gunfire.
Correa, a fiery leftist allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, called the incident a coup attempt. The opposition said the claim was being used by the government to justify authoritarian measures.
“Due to the lamentable events of September 30,” a letter from Congress to the defence ministry said as armoured personnel carriers clustered around the capitol building, “we ask you to transfer the security of the legislature to the military.”
Blocks away, a graffiti message sprayed in bright blue paint on a white wall asked: “Are the police your friends?”
Correa’s popularity rose 5 percentage points to 58 percent after last week’s violence, according to a survey released on Tuesday by Cedatos-Gallup. But only half of those polled agreed with the government that the protests amounted to an attempted coup.
The letter said Congress wanted the military to handle congressional security for as long as a state of alert decreed by Correa remained in effect.
The decree, due to expire at midnight on Tuesday, was extended until Friday by a new presidential order as Congress suspended a debate scheduled for Tuesday on a public finances bill.
Correa has majority support in Ecuador’s 124-member Congress. But his legislative agenda has been deadlocked by disagreements within his coalition over bills that have drawn public criticism, such as proposals to reform state finances and the higher education system.
State media played recordings of police radio traffic from last Thursday in which voices said to be those of officers are heard ordering fellow police to shoot Correa.
“Kill the son of a bitch,” one voice says.
The opposition accused the government of stoking fears of a coup to justify intimidating measures such as sending soldiers to Congress.
“We do not believe you can use the media to fabricate a supposed coup or a supposed kidnapping to justify an attitude that is absolutely authoritarian,” opposition congressman Cesar Montufar told reporters.
After the uprising, the government agreed to raise wages in the armed forces and police. The government said the pay increases had long been in the pipeline and it was merely chance they were approved just days after the police revolt.
Correa said over the weekend that the curtailing of bonuses and perks for police, soldiers, firefighters and other public employees had been more than offset by base salary increases granted since he first took office in 2007.
After confronting police protesters on Thursday, Correa was insulted and physically bullied until he took refuge in a hospital near police headquarters in Quito.
He was rescued in a nighttime raid by loyal troops. At least four people died in the confrontation, with four more killed and almost 300 injured across the South American nation during looting as the police went on strike.
The riots were a reminder that Ecuador is one of Latin America’s most turbulent countries, with three of eight presidents having been toppled in the decade before Correa brought a degree of stability with his 2006 election.
Additional reporting by Patricio Vivas and Santiago Silva; Editing by Will Dunham