Clashes as Paraguay lawmakers impeach president

Posted at 06/23/2012 7:49 AM

ASUNCION - Paraguayan lawmakers Friday impeached president Fernando Lugo over his handling of a deadly land dispute, sparking clashes between police and his supporters denouncing what they say was a coup.

In a 39-to-4 vote lawmakers found Lugo guilty of performing his duties badly during the land dispute, which left 17 people dead.

Lugo said he accepted the decision, although he described it as a blow to democracy. Just over an hour later his vice president Federico Franco was sworn in to cheers in the Congress as the South American nation's new leader.

Lugo supporters, massed outside Congress, reacted angrily by tearing down fences. Police, some on horseback, used tear gas and water cannons to beat them back. The crowd dispersed only to reform later, chanting "Lugo, president!"

But Lugo, a former Catholic bishop and champion of the poor, called for calm in a brief speech before leaving the presidential palace.

"I submit to the decision of Congress," Lugo said, but adding that "the history of Paraguay and its democracy have been deeply wounded."

"Today I retire as president, but not as Paraguayan citizen," he said. "May the blood of the just not be spilled."

Earlier he had accused the lawmakers of a political coup.

"It is more than a coup d'etat, it's a parliamentary coup dressed up as a legal procedure," an angry Lugo said on Paraguayan radio, as leftist regional governments like Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela rallied to his side.

About 5,000 protesters had gathered outside Congress to support the left-wing Lugo.

"We do not want the return of dictatorship," said one protester, Mariadelia, who had traveled to the capital from the Brazilian border to support Lugo.

Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, foreign ministers from the regional grouping UNASUR were quickly dispatched to Paraguay from a UN environment summit in Rio de Janeiro.

"It is a huge commitment, and will only be possible with the help and collaboration of all of you," Franco said after taking the oath of office.

Lawmakers announced the surprise move against the 61-year-old Lugo after clashes last week left at least six police and 11 squatters dead on a huge estate poor farmers claim was acquired by political influence decades ago.

Lugo sacked his interior minister and Paraguay's police chief to try to defuse the crisis, which highlighted the president's failure to redistribute land to the poor in a country where only a gilded few have all the wealth.

But the president was isolated after the right-wing Colorado Party, whose six-decade grip on power he ended in 2008, joined forces in the impeachment bid with the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, part of his ruling coalition.

Lugo appealed the impeachment proceedings before the Supreme Court, saying they were unconstitutional and that under the law he had the right to delay the process for 18 days to give him time to prepare his defense.

Lugo, who was recently treated for lymphatic cancer, had already said he would not seek another term in April 2013 elections.

But the process began shortly after 1630 GMT with Lugo's five lawyers -- appearing in the Senate on his behalf -- having just two hours to present their defense.

Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have denounced the proceedings as a "cover-up" for a coup d'etat, with Venezuelan Vice-President Elias Jaua condemning it as an imperialist attack on a "popular government."

The United States said it was concerned and watching developments in Asuncion very closely.

"Obviously we want to see any resolution of this matter be consistent with democracy and the Paraguayan constitution," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

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