Police encircle Ecuador Congress after court ruling

QUITO, April 24 Tue Apr 24, 2007 9:51am EDT

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QUITO, April 24 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Ecuadorean police carrying riot shields encircled Congress on Tuesday after the constitutional court reinstated 50 opposition lawmakers and rekindled the country's political crisis.

Left-wing President Rafael Correa condemned the court's ruling on Monday as illegal and a "shameless deal". Correa is striving to wrest power from the Congress and traditional political elites many blame for Ecuador's instability.

Ecuadoreans overwhelmingly supported a government-backed referendum last week to set up a special assembly to rewrite the constitution and curb the sway of traditional political elites over the judiciary and other institutions.

The 50 lawmakers reinstated on Monday had been among 57 fired last month by an electoral court, which said they violated election law by trying to block the referendum.

Congress, now controlled by pro-Correa legislators who replaced the fired lawmakers, could strike back on Tuesday and try to vote to force out the constitutional court members, some congressional aides said.

The reinstated legislators welcomed the ruling, but said they were debating whether to try to enter Congress and reclaim their seats. In March, they scuffled with police and forced their way into the legislature to protest their dismissal.

"We should be let back into Congress, but we fear for our safety," said Gloria Gallardo, one of the fired lawmakers. "We will analyze the position of the president and the election court before making any decision."

Hundreds of protesters from a leftist party that supports Correa briefly stormed the constitutional court on Monday to demand judges reverse the ruling. Judges were escorted out by police as a crowd pelted them with fruits and vegetables.

Correa, an economist elected in November, is popular for his calls for a broad political overhaul in a country where instability has ousted three presidents in a decade. But critics fear he wants to bolster his presidential powers.

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