Military deserts Ecuador's 'loco' leader

Ecuador'S defence minister resigned yesterday amid reports that the military had withdrawn all support from the government of President Abdala Bucaram. A ministry statement gave no reason for Victor Bayas's sudden decision to join three other cabinet officials, including Energy Minister Alfredo Adum, who have walked out on Mr Bucaram in the last 48 hours.

Mr Bayas declared a nationwide state of emergency on Friday to quell anti-Bucaram protests. The ousted president, who relished the nickname "El Loco" (the Madman) until Congress deemed him such on Thursday, was refusing to step down last night. True to form, he challenged his would- be successor to a fist-fight at dusk to decide who should run the country.

The Andean nation, gateway to the Galapagos and named by the Spanish conquistadores for the fact that it straddles the equator, is in chaos, with three people claiming to be president. The confusion, and bloody street clashes, raised the spectre of a military takeover that could set the nation back 20 years. "Bucaram no longer has the support of the military high command," Radio Quito said, citing sources close to senior military officials. The country's Catholic bishops were among those suggesting last night that the military get involved to solve the impasse, threatening to split Ecuadoreans along the traditional cultural divide between the Andes and the Pacific coast.

In addition to Mr Bucaram, 45, who took office only last August, the Speaker of Congress, Fabian Alarcon, 49, was claiming to be president. He was appointed interim head of state, pending new elections, after Congress decided on Thursday that Mr Bucaram's eccentric style of rule rendered him "mentally incompetent" to hold office. Also claiming the presidency was Rosalia Arteaga, 40, Mr Bucaram's vice-president.

After barricading himself in the presidential palace in Quito during two days of general strikes and street protests against him, Mr Bucaram slipped away on Friday night to his home city of Guayaquil, on the Pacific coast, where his support is strongest. To wild cheers from his followers, he called on "Alarcon the usurper" to show up last night for a "man-to- man" confrontation.

"I don't accept that kind of dare," Mr Alarcon replied in Quito, where he and other protesters had been driven back from the presidential palace on Friday by riot police with tear gas. One person was killed.

Despite his nickname, even his opponents considered Mr Bucaram more of a buffoon than a madman, and there was widespread criticism of what Mr Bucaram called the "congressional coup d'etat" against him. President Carlos Menem of Argentina warned that the congressional vote, using an obscure law on "mental competence" rather than an exhaustive impeachment process, could set a dangerous precedent under which any group of legislators could oust an elected president.

Trained as a lawyer, and holding a post-graduate degree in physical education, Mr Bucaram made his name as a young civil servant in Guayaquil when he drove around on a motorbike on a moral crusade "to clean up the city". He was known to have ordered local girls to let down the hems of their miniskirts.

As president, he was said to favour the reverse of that policy. Residents of Quito said he could be seen walking around incognito late at night, visiting nightclubs and taking women home to a hotel he preferred over the presidential palace. His CD Madman in Love became a major hit and he performed "Jailhouse Rock" in Spanish on television, flanked by miniskirted dancers. For the voters, however, the straw that broke the camel's back was when he raised basic utilities prices last month by 300 per cent.

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