QUITO, Ecuador – Lawmakers in Ecuador (search) voted Wednesday to remove embattled President Lucio Gutierrez from office after a week of escalating street protests demanding his ouster, and they swore in Vice President Alfredo Palacio to replace him.
In Brazil (search), that country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday night that Gutierrez, a close U.S. ally, was in the Brazilian Embassy in Quito and has asked for political asylum. The statement said the Brazilian government is taking the necessary steps to grant asylum.
Hours earlier, an unidentified army officer in combat gear said on television that Gutierrez and his wife, Congresswoman Ximena Bohorquez (search), had left the presidential palace. An Associated Press photographer saw a small helicopter land briefly on the palace roof and a figure climb aboard.
The protests were fueled by allegations that Gutierrez meddled with the courts in a move to amass power. Demonstrations surged over the past week and late Tuesday night 30,000 protesters marched on the palace, demanding Gutierrez's ouster.
The rapid events were only the latest in a long history of political instability in Ecuador, where two other presidents have been forced from office since 1997. Gutierrez himself led the rebellion that toppled President Jamil Mahuad in 2000.
Gutierrez was elected two years later on a populist, anti-corruption platform. But his left-leaning constituency soon fell apart after he instituted austerity measures, including cuts in food subsidies and cooking fuel, to satisfy international lenders.
Opponents have accused him of trying to consolidate power from all branches of government. On Friday Gutierrez dissolved the Supreme Court in a bid to placate protests after his congressional allies in December fired most of the court's judges and named replacements sympathetic to his government. That move was widely viewed as unconstitutional.
Acting Attorney General Cecilia Armas issued an arrest order for Gutierrez for his alleged role in violently suppressing recent protests across Ecuador, a Colorado-size, oil-rich Andean nation of 12.5 million inhabitants on the northwest shoulder of South America.
While Gutierrez was reported in the Brazilian Embassy, some protesters apparently believed he was trying to leave from Quito's airport. Television images showed hundreds of people forcing their way onto the military landing strip and blocking a twin-engine plane from taking off. A helicopter parked nearby was like the one seen at the palace. The airport was closed for security reasons.
For much of the day a crowd of some 500 protesters kept new President Palacio from leaving the building where congressmen were forced to meet to vote Gutierrez out of office because crowds had blocked the entrance to Congress.
As demonstrators demanded he dissolve Congress, which many link to Gutierrez, the 66-year-old cardiologist tried to calm the crowd from a balcony.
"The arrogance has ended. The dictatorship has ended," he yelled to the crowd, which chanted "Dissolve Congress!"
Earlier, he pledged in a local television interview not to "pardon or forget the people who violated the Constitution."
Violence flared in the hours before Gutierrez was removed. As protesters took to Quito's streets, TV images showed looters rifling offices at the Ministry of Social Welfare and masked gunmen firing pistols near the building. Firefighters battled a blaze into the afternoon at the site set by demonstrators.
A special session made up of opposition legislators in the 100-seat unicameral Congress took less than an hour to reach the decision in a 62-0 vote in hopes of ending a crisis that was spiraling out of control with the threat of violent clashes between Gutierrez supporters and opponents.
Palacio, who broke with Gutierrez after they were elected, was sworn in by Congress President Cinthia Viteri after the vote.
Adm. Victor Hugo Rosero, head of the joint chiefs of staff, announced after the vote that the military had withdrawn its support for Gutierrez.
"In this scenario of anarchy, the military high command ... has been forced to make the hard decision of withdrawing support from the constitutional president in order to protect public safety and recover peace and tranquility," Rosero said.
Legislators based their decision on a clause in the Constitution that allows Congress to remove a president for "abandonment of the position." Congressman Ramiro Rivera made the motion, arguing that since Gutierrez had not complied faithfully with the responsibilities of the presidency, Congress should declare it vacant.
The measure avoided a drawn-out impeachment process and was similar to what Congress did in 1997 when it dismissed President Abdala Bucaram for "mental incapacity."
Just hours earlier, Gutierrez told The AP in an interview that he had no intention of resigning.
"There is not the least possibility. I was elected for four years," he said. "My government ends in January 2007."
In a blow to Gutierrez earlier Wednesday, the head of Ecuador's national police force, Gen. Jorge Poveda, resigned, saying, "I regret what happened yesterday. I cannot continue to be a witness to the confrontation with the Ecuadorean people. I am not a violent man."
Thousands of blue-uniformed high school students took to the streets Wednesday to demonstrate against Gutierrez. Many gathered on Avenida Amazonas, Quito's most important avenue, beating drums and chanting, "Get out, Lucio!" Other students convened at different points across the city.
Renan Borbua, head of the ruling party in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city located 168 miles southwest of the capital, said he was sending thousands of pro-Gutierrez supporters by bus to the capital to "defend democracy and the Constitution."