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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rice Urges Calm as Crisis in Ecuador Rages On

VILNIUS, Lithuania / QUITO, Ecuador -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Ecuadoreans on Thursday to eschew violence and follow the constitution to hold possible fresh elections after Congress ousted President Lucio Gutierrez.

Following a week of increasingly violent protests in which the president was accused of abusing his power by meddling with the Andean nation's top court, Congress named Vice President Alfredo Palacio on Wednesday to serve until Gutierrez's term was due to end in 2007.

But several hundred demonstrators briefly trapped Palacio in the building where he was sworn in and demanded that he dissolve Congress and call early elections.

"We are simply asking everyone to keep calm in the area. There should be no violence. There needs now to be a constitutional process to get to elections, if that is what is in the future," Rice told Fox news on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Lithuania.

"This is really a time for the entire region, in particular, and international community to try to put a ... democratic process there and a constitutional process," the top U.S. diplomat added. Rice, who plans to travel to South America next week -- although not to Ecuador -- said the United States had "relations" with the new president.

Gutierrez, the third president of the Andean nation to be toppled amid popular unrest in eight years, was replaced by his vice president after a day of escalating clashes between opposing protesters in which two people were reported killed.

A military helicopter flew him out of the presidential palace in colonial downtown Quito after 60 congressmen from the 100-seat chamber voted to oust him for "abandoning his post."

Brazil's foreign ministry said in a statement issued in Brasilia later that Gutierrez was in the Brazilian embassy in Quito.

Congress' appointment of Palacio to serve out the rest of Gutierrez's term drew immediate counter-protests. Palacio, a 66-year-old cardiologist who had been a prominent critic of his former boss and his economic policies, said he would consider an election but could not dissolve Congress.

Plumes of smoke rose over parts of the city as rival groups of protesters ran riot. At one point anti-government demonstrators broke into the Congress building, smashing windows and chairs.

The state prosecutor's office said it ordered Gutierrez's arrest for two deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday during the demonstrations.

Opposition congressmen, who accused Gutierrez of being a dictator after his move last December to fill the Supreme Court with political allies, said he had effectively abandoned his post by failing to properly carry out presidential duties.

The armed forces, traditional arbiters of power, abandoned Gutierrez, who had refused to quit. "We have been forced to withdraw support from the president in order to ensure public safety," said the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Victor Hugo Rosero.

In 2000, Gutierrez himself helped topple President Jamil Mahuad. He was briefly jailed for leading a coup and was elected in late 2002 with support largely from the poor.

Although the economy in the oil-rich country, also the world's biggest exporter of bananas, has been flourishing, there has been little relief for the country's poor.

Street protests erupted in Quito a week ago to protest a Supreme Court decision to drop corruption charges against former President Abdala Bucaram, a key political ally of Gutierrez. Bucaram, known as "The Madman," was himself ousted from the presidency by Congress in 1997 for "mental incompetence."

Thousands of Gutierrez supporters armed with machetes and guns had driven on buses into the capital, Quito, on Wednesday, but were met by crowds of anti-government protesters who tried to block their path downtown.

Congress fired the newly appointed Supreme Court on Sunday, just two days after Gutierrez dismissed it himself in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Gutierrez also declared a state of emergency in Quito on Friday night but rescinded it after less than 24 hours to make talks with the opposition easier.