Ecuador's Congress defies shutdown

QUITO Thu Jan 3, 2008 7:39pm EST

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QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean lawmakers held a session of Congress on Thursday in defiance of a rival legislative body dominated by leftist President Rafael Correa's allies, stoking tensions in the volatile Andean country.

A special assembly charged with drafting a new constitution voted in November to temporarily close the opposition-led Congress and take on its legislative duties.

But about 60 of Congress' 100 lawmakers gathered at a hotel in the capital of Quito on Thursday. They did not meet at the Congress building for fear of provoking clashes with police, but promised to hold further sessions around the country.

"The goal here is to put an end to this nonsense," said Pedro Almeida, an opposition lawmaker. "In this country, we have to respect the rule of law and the constitution."

Analysts say Congress' lawmakers could join forces with influential mayors and business groups in a bid to scuttle Correa's leftist reforms and lead street protests against him.

Opinion polls show Correa's reforms are widely popular, in contrast with Congress, considered corrupt and inefficient by most Ecuadoreans.

Congress has repeatedly clashed with Correa over his leftist policies, leading to some lawmakers being fired by electoral authorities and scuffles with police last year.

Alberto Acosta, who leads the constitutional assembly loyal to Correa, said it will ignore any decisions taken by Congress' lawmakers. The government has warned it will not to allow Congress to reconvene.

Correa has expanded his powers since his election in 2006, promising to fight poverty through a "citizen's revolution," although critics call him an autocrat.

He has also spooked Wall Street with threats to default on foreign debt payments, and last year decreed a massive tax hike on oil firms operating in South America's No. 5 oil producer.

Ecuadoreans have forcibly ousted three presidents in 10 years as popular discontent with traditional political parties and outrage over corruption sparked street protests.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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