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Friday, April 13, 2007

Ecuador Congressmen flee after tear-gas attack

13 April, 2007

QUITO (Reuters) - Gasping Ecuadorean lawmakers fled Congress on Thursday after a tear-gas canister exploded in the building in another sign of tensions rising before a referendum which pits President Rafael Correa against congressmen.

"The government planned this," lawmaker Luis Almeida told Ecuadorean television, blaming a bodyguard of legislators loyal to Correa for the late morning tear-gas attack.

Congress security officials said the canister exploded in a room next to the main chamber and that they had detained a suspect who had tried to fling it into the chamber.

Voters in the volatile Andean state are expected to back Sunday's referendum proposed by the leftist president to set up a new assembly to overhaul the constitution, possibly sapping the powers of a Congress widely seen as corrupt.

The unpopular legislature, blamed for the country's political instability after helping oust three presidents in a decade, canceled its session after wisps of gas wafted into the main chamber where lawmakers were debating a bill.

Congress had restarted work on Tuesday after a bitter, month-long dispute with the president over the referendum. More than half the lawmakers were fired and fought with police trying to get back into the chamber.

Congress finally reconvened with substitutes replacing the fired lawmakers, a victory for Correa, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who wants to renegotiate oil deals and the national debt.

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