By MERCEDES ALVARO And ROBERT KOZAK
QUITO—Ecuador declared a state of emergency on Thursday after protests by members of the military and police led to nationwide unrest.
President Rafael Correa dubbed the protests an attempted coup d’état, but rivals said the president was exaggerating the situation for political gain.
The trouble began early Thursday when some members of the military and national police walked off the job, protesting wage cuts proposed by the government. Members of Ecuador’s air force stormed the international airport in Quito and blocked the runway.
Protests quickly spread to other cities, leading to roadblocks and rioting. Banks were closed after several were robbed. In the country’s two other principal cities, Guayaquil and Cuenca, police took over government buildings, burned tires and set off tear gas, according to local media reports.
Mr. Correa’s government declared a state of emergency for five days, mobilizing the country’s armed forces that weren’t on strike. The country’s top military leaders weren’t backing the protests: The chairman of Ecuador’s joint chiefs of staff said the armed forces are backing Mr. Correa.
Several Latin American countries offered Mr. Correa their support. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the U.S. supports President Correa “and the institutions of democratic government” in Ecuador.
The unrest stemmed from a series of legal changes that came into effect Wednesday night after the opposition in the Ecuadorean Congress failed to pass changes that would have modified a law sent by President Correa to the legislature. Failure to pass the modifications meant that the law, which slows salary increases for police and the military, went into effect. Mr. Correa has been a principal backer of the overhaul, saying salaries have ballooned in recent years.
On Thursday, Mr. Correa himself was sent to the hospital after inhaling tear gas that was sprayed while he visited a police barracks. The president remained in the hospital late Thursday evening; Mr. Correa’s office said he wasn’t able to leave because of police protesters surrounding the building.
With a gas mask on his head, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa gestures as he runs away from tear gas during a protest of police officers and soldiers against a new law that cuts their benefits at a police base in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday. Mr. Correa tried to speak with a group of police protesters but was shouted down.
The president called the event a “coup attempt” by his opponents and the armed forces. “We aren’t going to let the constitutional order be broken. Nothing is going to stop the citizen revolution,” said Mr. Correa, a close ally of Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chávez.
Critics of Mr. Correa said he was exaggerating. Rubén Darío Buitrón, an editor with El Comercio, a leading Quito newspaper, said that no coup was under way and that the government was spinning the protests in order to gain support.
“It is a media show and things have been exaggerated by the government in order to make it look like a victim,” he said, adding that the problems originated from low-ranking officers, not from any group of military generals wishing to take control.
An air force officer, Florencio Ruiz, called in a televised broadcast for protestors to halt their demonstrations, which he said could lead to a “blood bath.”
The unrest is significant in a nation plagued by political instability, where no president has finished a full term in office since 1996. A number of presidents since then have been pushed out following unrest in the streets.
Analysts said Mr. Correa could use the crisis to further consolidate power. On Thursday, Mr. Correa said he was seriously considering dissolving Congress. Under Ecuador’s constitution, however, that would mean he would have to call new elections for both the parliament and for his job as president.
“President Correa’s uncompromising style, and today’s press statements, suggest the president will not easily back down from what is turning into the most serious political crisis of his mandate,” said Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos in a research note.
So far Mr. Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, has avoided the pitfalls of his predecessors. The president, who has pushed through a new constitution and boosted the government’s stake in the local oil industry, appeals to many poor in Ecuador. But Mr. Correa is also facing strained public-sector finances, in part because of a shutoff of much international funding since his government defaulted on a series of sovereign bonds. He has been pushing through legislation by decree recently instead of relying on congressional approval, which has met with disapproval from various sectors for the cutbacks being implemented.
On Thursday Mr. Correa received support from neighboring countries including Argentina, Chile and Peru, as well as from Venezuela’s Mr. Chávez, who telephoned the Ecuadorean president. Colombia and Peru said they were closing their borders with Ecuador, while Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera called for a meeting of the Unasur regional economic and political bloc to discuss the situation.
The Organization of American States held an extraordinary session to discuss the events in Ecuador.
Mr. Correa’s current term ends in 2013; he can run again for a new four-year term then.
Write to Mercedes Alvaro at firstname.lastname@example.org