MONTEVIDEO, Sep 30, 2010 (IPS) - "We're not letting him (President Rafael Correa) leave, and he's going to pay for what he's done to the police."
That phrase from an Ecuadorian police official to his subordinates, which was overheard by Colombian human rights activist Jorge Rojas, provides a brief summary of Thursday's confusing events in Ecuador.
Police in Ecuador rioted Thursday, demanding the repeal of a public services law passed by Congress the day before, which would end the practice of granting soldiers and police medals and bonuses with each promotion, and would extend from five to seven years the period between promotions.
Correa was attacked by police protesters when he visited the police station where the rioting broke out early in the morning. From there he was taken to the police hospital, where he was still being held at 7:30 PM local time (12:30 PM GMT).
Rojas is a Colombian journalist who traded in his microphone and pen in the early 1990s to work with the Catholic Church on an issue that few were talking about at the time: the forced displacement of tens of thousands of rural inhabitants by the armed conflict in his country.
He became director of the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a leading national human rights organisation that is the main non-governmental source of information on the internally displaced in Colombia.
According to CODHES, more than four million people in Colombia have been forcibly displaced. Most of those who have fled the country have crossed the border into Ecuador.
That is why Rojas is in the Ecuadorian capital, to attend a meeting of experts from several countries on forced displacement and refugees, preparatory to a regional conference on the issue.
"The meeting, of course, has been damaged," he told IPS by telephone. "Our colleagues from Costa Rica, Peru and Colombia did not make it here, and I have been trapped here in Quito," because the air force closed down all the international airports.
Feeling the effects of the tear gas outside the hospital where Correa is "under siege," Rojas described what happened, in an interview with IPS at 4:00 PM local time (9:00 PM GMT).
"I'm in the middle of the demonstration...I came to see the mobilisation in support of the president," he said.
"This hospital is in the higher-lying area of Quito, to the northwest. A lot of people have come out to support Correa, but there's a contingent of around 200 police, who are using tear gas, firing weapons, repressing. They have beaten people," he said.
"But more people are showing up and the question is what is going to happen, because the army, which said it supported the government, hasn't appeared, it's not defending the hospital. We don't know how safe President Correa really is," he added.
Q: You mentioned that you heard instructions given among the police. Can you tell me about that?
A: When I was in the National Assembly (the legislature), I went up close to a group of police who were receiving guidelines from a colonel or general, I couldn't tell which. This officer told the police not to talk in terms of "kidnapping the president," because that could cause problems for them. He said they should say the president was being "protected by the police in the hospital."
And in the same breath, the officer said: "But we're not letting him leave. And he's going to pay for what he's done to the police." That's what I heard.
Q: You were in the legislature at the time?
A: No, not inside -- I was outside. The National Assembly has been taken over by the police. And the police who were receiving this order, these instructions, were throwing up barricades at the entrance and around the legislature, and burning tires.
Q: Outside the hospital, what is the attitude of the people?
A: They're peaceful. The police have been called on not to clash with the people, but the police continue to behave aggressively. The important thing is that the people are resisting this, they're mobilising, but without inciting violence.
The violence is coming from the police themselves, not only here at the hospital, but in other parts of Quito, where the police are putting up barricades and burning tires and that kind of thing.
Q: Can you estimate how many people are there?
A: In the spot where I am, there are approximately 3,000 people. But they're along several streets leading up to the hospital. I was on another street, and it was filling up with people, so I think we're approaching 4,000 or 5,000 people.
Right now there are army helicopters (the helicopter blades can be heard clearly). The people are even waving to them. Because they are waiting for the army to arrive here. (The noise gets louder.) There are the helicopters. The people are asking them to come and rescue the president.
Q: Are there any representatives of the CONAIE (the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) among the demonstrators?
A: No. In fact, this morning, some of the leaders of the Pachakutik movement (the CONAIE's political expression) made statements that more or less backed the police, but then they stopped doing that.
The students and indigenous people, who are against the government, have not shown up in the demonstrations, as far as I can see. I basically see people who support Correa and others who support the police, or right-wing sectors that are mobilising, to support the police and egg on the coup.
Because this isn't just a problem of demands by the police. This, it seems, was very well planned. So well planned that the airports were taken over by a sector of the air force which, undoubtedly, has to do with the coup. Because there was no reason to suspend the flights at all of the country's airports.
Q: What happened to the helicopters? They flew over and left?
A: Two helicopters came by. They're flying over the area, but they're not coming. And the people are asking them to come and rescue the president. The commander of the armed forces said they back the president, but they're not moving. Quito is without police. There has been looting in some places. There are only private guards, but there's no army in the streets, for example. Nor has the army come here, to this place -- there have just been overflights by helicopters.
* Additional reporting by Constanza Vieira in Bogotá. (END)