QUITO, Ecuador — The government declared a state of siege Thursday after rebellious police angered by a law that cuts their benefits plunged this small South American nation into chaos, roughing up the president, shutting down airports and blocking highways in a nationwide strike.
Incensed officers shoved President Rafael Correa around and pelted him with tear gas and water when he tried to speak at a police barracks in the capital. Correa, 47, was hospitalized from the effects of the gas.
The state of siege puts the military in charge of public order, suspending civil liberties and allowing soldiers to carry out searches without a warrant.
Hundreds of officers involved in the insurrection took over police barracks in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities. They also set up roadblocks out of burning tires that cut off highway access to the capital.
Schools shut down in Quito and many businesses closed due to the absence of police protection that left citizens and businesses vulnerable to crime.
Looting was reported in the capital — where at least two banks were sacked — and in the coastal city Guayaquil. That city's main newspaper, El Universo, reported assaults on supermarkets and robberies due to the absence of police.
As he confronted the protesters, Correa was agitated but firm.
"If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me!" he told them before limping away with the aid of a cane as an aide fitted a gas mask over his face. Correa's right knee was operated on just last week.
There were no reports of serious violence against the government, but Correa called the unrest "an attempted coup by the opposition," speaking by telephone from a hospital room where he said he was hooked to an intravenous drip.
His leftist ally, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said in a Twitter message that "they are trying to oust President Correa."
Other leaders in the region expressed firm support for Correa, while the Organization of American States met in special session in Washington, D.C., to discuss the crisis.
Peru's president, Alan Garcia, announced that he was shutting the country's border with Ecuador until Correa's "democratic authority" was re-established.
The protest appeared to have arisen spontaneously. There was no immediate evidence it was organized by the opposition and no protest leaders emerged to denounce the government.
The striking police were angered by a law passed by Congress on Wednesday that would end the practice of giving members of Ecuador's military and police medals and bonuses with each promotion. It would also extend from five to seven years the usual period required for before a subsequent promotion.
"They are a bunch of ungrateful bandits," Correa said of the protesters. "No one has supported the police as much as this government," he told reporters.
The law needs to be published before it takes effect and that has not happened.
The U.S. Embassy issued a message warning U.S. citizens "of a "nationwide strike by all levels of police, including military police." It warned them to "stay in their homes or current location, if safe."
The Quito newspaper La Hora quoted the armed forces chief, Luiz Gonzalez, as saying that the military was loyal to Correa. However the National Assembly building was occupied by striking police.
A crowd of hundreds of Correa supporters gathered outside.
The president's policy coordination minister, Doris Soliz, asked Ecuadoreans to be calm and support the government.
"This is an act of indiscipline that is going to be controlled. It is being controlled," she said. "The military chiefs are completely supporting democracy."
Air force troops shut down the Quito's Mariscal Sucre airport as the protests commenced Thursday morning. An airport official who refused to give her name said its "operations have been suspended."
The airport's president, Philippe Baril, told a local radio station that 300 troops had occupied runways, forcing flight cancelations. About 700 passengers were stranded, he said.
The U.S. Embassy said Guayaquil's airport was also closed.
Dozens of Correa supporters marched toward the city center to support him.
Traditionally unstable politically, this nation of 14 million has seen relative peace and stability since Correa, a U.S.-trained economist allied with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, took office in January 2007.
Associated Press photographer Dolores Ochoa in Quito and AP writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.