Ecuador’s new president, Alfredo Palacio, told IPS that he would complete the term of Lucio Gutiérrez, who was removed by Congress Wednesday, even though the protesters demanding that Gutiérrez step down called for early elections in just four months.

Palacio said he would build a "government of national unity," and would stay in office until January 2007.

After four months of political crisis and a week of escalating social unrest, the legislature held a quick vote Wednesday to sack Gutiérrez for "dereliction of duty", arguing that he had failed to live up to his responsibilities as president.

In keeping with the constitution, he was immediately replaced by Palacio, his vice-president, a medical doctor by profession.

Nor does Palacio plan to call off the negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States, or cancel the contract through which Ecuador has loaned the air base in the northern port city of Manta to the U.S. military — two other demands voiced by the protesters.

"We shouldn’t be scared of the free trade agreement, but we should negotiate as equals with the United States," said the new president, who added that he would respect all contracts signed by Ecuador, including the one involving the Manta air base.

Governments in the region reacted with caution.

The administration of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina expressed its "concern over the grave institutional crisis in our sister republic of Ecuador", and "particularly lamented the loss of human lives" - a reference to the death of a journalist in Tuesday’s protests.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos cancelled a planned trip to Ecuador, and said from the Venezuelan capital, where he is visiting, that he was confident that the people of Ecuador "will find it possible to resolve their problems within a state of law and in line with their constitution."

His Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, added that "all of the governments of South America are in contact, in order to begin to adopt common stances, as a South American union, in the face of regrettable situations such as this one."

On Tuesday, the police cracked down harshly on a march by more than 30,000 demonstrators, and Chilean photo-journalist Julio García died of respiratory arrest caused by the effects of tear gas. More than 50 people were injured.

On Wednesday, streets in several neighbourhoods in Quito were blocked by protesters as busloads of paid counter-demonstrators were brought in from nearby provinces to support the government and confront the protesters.

Gutiérrez refused to resign, and was removed by Congress. A few minutes later, he left the government palace by helicopter, after the armed forces chief, Admiral Víctor Hugo Rosero, announced that the armed forces had withdrawn their support from the president "to safeguard the peace."

On Dec. 8, 2004, a majority in the legislature made up of parties close to the government removed 27 of the 31 Supreme Court magistrates and replaced them with allies, in a move considered unconstitutional by the opposition parties.

For four months, lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a solution to the crisis.

The situation took a turn for the worse on Apr. 1, when the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Guillermo Castro, threw out the corruption trials against former presidents Abdalá Bucaram (1996-1997) and Gustavo Noboa (2000-2003), as well as former vice-president Alberto Dahik (1992-1995), all of whom were living in exile.

Castro’s decision allowed them to return to Ecuador, which further fuelled the rage of the protesters.

In a special session on Apr. 17, Congress voted unanimously to fire the new Supreme Court justices, who are not to be replaced until lawmakers reach agreement on a new law that would create an independent mechanism for the selection of magistrates.

However, the resolution did not overturn the annulment of the corruption trials against Bucaram, Noboa and Dahik.

While the legislators of Bucaram’s Ecuadorian Roldosista Party argue that the cases will remain closed because the congressional resolution did not specifically address the issue, opposition lawmakers say the dismissal of the hand-picked Court invalidated all of its decisions.

Parliamentary Deputy Guillermo Landázuri, the leader of the Democratic Left opposition party, argued that it would be up to the future Supreme Court to decide on the prosecutions against the former presidents and vice-president.

The protesters opposed any interference by the political parties in their demonstrations and demanded the resignation of all executive, legislative and judicial branch officials, chanting "Lucio, Get Out!" and "Que se vayan todos" (They Should All Go).

The protests broke out last Wednesday in Quito, with thousands of people taking to the streets to call for Gutiérrez’s removal.

On Saturday, Gutiérrez invoked the national security law and decreed a state of emergency, suspending civil rights, calling the army out into the streets, and giving the government the power to take over other branches of the state.

In the same decree, the president dismissed the Supreme Court.

Gutiérrez justified his decisions saying he had to put an end to the political crisis, using the special powers granted by the state of emergency, but the opposition accused him of adopting a "dictatorial" resolution to repress the demonstrations.

Luis Macas, the president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), said his organisation would continue to press for compliance with its demands, even though Gutiérrez was ousted.

"We are demanding that the country suspend the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the United States, close the Manta military base, and oppose the country’s involvement in Plan Colombia," the U.S.-financed counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy implemented in war-torn neighbouring Colombia, said Macas.

Palacio had already distanced himself from Gutiérrez over a year ago, and had been making public statements against the government every time a political crisis broke out.

Gutiérrez, a retired army colonel, and Palacio won the presidential elections in a runoff vote in November 2003.