QUITO — Ecuador was plunged into crisis Thursday as troops seized the main airport and police stormed the Congress, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency and denounce an attempted coup.
About 150 renegade troops seized a runway at Ecuador's international airport in the capital of the South American nation, as dozens of police protested against a new law which would strip them of some pay bonuses.
President Rafael Correa, 47, a leftist ally of his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez, swiftly denounced what he called a coup bid, and sought refuge in a hospital after failing to calm tensions in an occupied barracks.
"It is a coup attempt led by the opposition and certain sections of the armed forces and the police," Correa, who has governed the country since 2007, told local television.
"If anything happens to me, they will be responsible," he added, blaming sections of the opposition and troops loyal to former president Lucio Gutierrez for the unrest.
As tear gas was used on the streets of the capital to try to beat back crowds of police protestors, the government declared a state of emergency.
Security Minister Miguel Carvajal told reporters the armed forces "have received instructions to maintain public order and guarantee the rights of citizens."
He added that "not all the police are in insubordination" despite the wave of unrest.
Dozens of police units took over government buildings in the country's other two main cities, Guayaquil and Cuenca, and Foreign Minister Ricardo Pitino blamed the insurrection on "sectors aiming to overthrow the government."
The unrest, which recalled a coup which overthrew the elected president in Honduras last year, rocked Ecuador's neighbors with many leaders swiftly coming out in his support, while Peru closed their joint border.
The United States said it was "closely monitoring" the events, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged all sides to refrain from violence.
Correa has vowed he will not bow in face of the protests, as the army chief threw his weight behind the Ecuadoran leader and vowed to restore order.
"No, I will not step back, if they want to seize the barracks, if they want to leave the citizens defenseless and betray their mission," Correa told soldiers from Quito's main regiment earlier when he sought to calm tensions.
Army chief Ernesto Gonzalez threw his full support behind Correa, who was said to be considering dissolving Congress and holding snap elections to resolve the political crisis.
"We live in a state which is governed by laws, and we are subordinate to the highest authority which is the president of the republic," Gonzalez told a press conference.
"We will take whatever appropriate action the government decides on."
Dozens of Correa supporters were meanwhile descending on the hospital where he had sought refuge, vowing to rescue him. "Down with the coup, down with the enemies of the people," they chanted.
The leftist Correa was re-elected last year to a second term as president of the country of some 14.5 million people, which is bordered by Colombia and Peru.
International election observers at the time criticized Correa's "dominant" media presence in the run up to the vote, which they said had damaged the poll's fairness.
Since first taking power in 2007, Correa has proven controversial because of his close ties to regional leftists like Chavez.
The US-educated economist took a tough stance with investors and refused to repay foreign debt, in moves welcomed by supporters who blamed the effects of the economic crisis on foreign liberalism.
His reelection was seen as giving some stability to the world's top banana exporter that has seen three of its previous presidents -- between 1996 and 2006 -- ousted before the end of their terms.
And Correa promised to pursue social programs funded by oil wealth in the OPEC nation where 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.