QUITO, Ecuador – Ecuador has ordered all 20 Defense Department employees in the U.S. Embassy's military group to leave the country by month's end, The Associated Press has learned.
The group was ordered to halt operations in Ecuador in a letter dated April 7, said embassy spokesman Jeffrey Weinshenker.
The AP was first alerted to the expulsions by a senior Ecuadorean official who refused to be identified by name due to the information's sensitive nature.
President Rafael Correa had publicly complained in January that Washington had too many military officers in Ecuador, claiming there were 50, and said they had been "infiltrated in all sectors." At the time, he said he planned to order some to leave.
Weinshenker said the military group had 20 Department of Defense employees, not all of them uniformed, and that Washington had provided $7 million in security assistance to Ecuador last year, including technical training for maintaining aircraft and cooperation in combatting drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism.
Weinshenker said U.S. military cooperation in Ecuador dates back four decades and that "all the activities we have carried out have had the explicit approval of our Ecuadorean counterparts."
U.S. relations with Ecuador have been strained in recent years, even before Correa provided asylum in 2012 to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization published troves of leaked U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables highly embarrassing to Washington.
Correa had previously expelled at least three U.S. diplomats including then-Ambassador Heather Hodges in 2011 in response to a cable divulged by WikiLeaks that suggested Correa was aware of high-level police corruption.
In November, Correa's government said it was asking the U.S. Agency for International Development to end operations in the country, accusing it of backing the opposition.
USAID is to end operations in September when programs it is funding have run their course.
Shortly after first taking office in 2007, Correa purged Ecuador's military of officers deemed to have close relations with U.S. counterparts. He also ended an agreement with Washington that allowed U.S. drug interdiction flights to be based at the Ecuadorean airfield in Manta.
Correa is popular at home for his poverty-fighting programs but widely criticized for stifling civil liberties and using criminal defamation law against journalists.