Fears as 'El Loco' stands firm

Rival claims to presidency put Ecuador army on alert

Ecuador's President Abdala Bucaram, who encourages the nickname "El Loco" (the madman), was barricaded inside the presidential palace last night after Congress ruled he was "mentally incapacitated".

Thousands of angry demonstrators, including Congressmen led by the newly declared President, Fabian Alarcon, marched on the palace, threatening a confrontation with riot police and troops.

Riot police had earlier used tear gas to prevent anti- Bucaram protesters clambering over barbed wire towards the building on Independence Square. They were demanding that Mr Bucaram step down because of his eccentric behaviour, alleged corruption and turn-round on economic policies. Police said an 18-year-old student, Patricio Uyumbillo, died of unknown causes during the disturbances. Opposition politicians said Mr Uyumbillo's skull had been fractured by a tear-gas canister.

The defence minister, Victor Bayas, a retired army general, declared a state of emergency but, since he formed part of Mr Bucaram's cabinet, the status of his declaration was unclear.

After voting against Mr Bucaram last Thursday night, Congress had sworn in its own Speaker, Mr Alarcon, as interim president until new elections could be held. But Mr Bucaram said he would not recognise" a congressional coup d'etat". To complicate matters, his vice-president, Rosalia Arteaga, also declared herself president, leaving three people claiming to be head of state of the South American nation of 11.7 million people. The Argentine President, Carlos Menem, was quick to support Mr Bucaram, noting that the Ecuadorean Congress's unusual move could set a dangerous precedent in Latin America.

The palace was surrounded by troops. It was not clear which way they would turn. With the country's democracy only 18 years old, the commanders of the armed forces were quick to stress yesterday that they did not want to take over.

"This situation is very serious. There cannot be a power vacuum. There must be a rapid, legal solution. The armed forces are not going to take power," the army commander, General Paco Moncayo, said. Political analysts in Quito, however, said they may have to to resolve the impasse.

Despite Ecuador's relatively recent experiences of military dictatorships, General Moncayo is popular in Ecuador and would be likely to lead the country should the military step in. Mr Bucaram, who took office last August after a clear election victory on a populist platform, accused Congress of staging a conspiracy and an illegal coup against him in its Thursday night vote. The 82-member Congress voted 44-34, with two abstentions and two members absent, that he was "mentally incapacitated".

Despite the "mental incapacity" legal measure, and his nickname, few believe that Mr Bucaram is mad. No one denies his eccentricity. Despite this week's protests, he still has strong support among the poor and the Indians, although that was eroded by January's austerity measures, including a 60 per cent rise in bus fares.

He was a lawyer, with a post-graduate degree in physical education, before being elected mayor of Guayaquil, in the early Eighties. In the present stand-off, he may regret having said in 1985 that the military was a waste of money and "only good for marching in parades".

In a last-minute effort to save his skin on Thursday, he said many of the price rises would be rescinded and that he was sacking key cabinet ministers, including his brother, Adolfo, Minister of Social Welfare.

Congress's move against him may actually boost sympathy for Mr Bucaram among the poor. His eccentricities were widely accepted, even applauded until he reversed his populist policies. Calling himself "the madman" helped him win the election. Many loved it when he recorded his compact disc, Madman in Love, with a cover picture of him in the presidential sash.

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