QUITO, Ecuador — Elite army commandos led by 16 tanks today stormed and recaptured in fierce fighting an air force base held by a renegade general trying to overthrow President Leon Febres Cordero.
The whereabouts of Gen. Frank Vargas, who launched his rebellion a week ago to protest official corruption, were not immediately determined. Authorities also said the extent of casualties was not clear.
About 100 army commandos, part of a loyalist force that surrounded Mariscal Sucre Air Base outside Quito overnight, began the assault at 8:45 a.m. PST.
As the first eight tanks rumbled onto the Tarmac, about 300 youths who had gathered at the base in a show of support for Vargas leaped on top of the vehicles in an attempt to stop them, but they were repelled by tear gas.
Between 800 and 1,000 air force troops and civilian employees loyal to the general opened fire on the commando force with small arms, and a fierce fire fight broke out as thousands of spectators gathered on nearby hillsides.
Warplanes Not Used
The shooting stopped after about 45 minutes, and ambulances moved in to begin picking up the dead and wounded. There were several warplanes at the base, but they were not used.
Before the attack, the revolt had appeared to be gaining strength throughout Ecuador, an impoverished nation of 9 million people that has been headed by a civilian president since the last military government left office in 1979.
News reports said as many as 6,000 people rallied in support of Vargas in the streets of the town of Porto Viejo in Vargas' home province, and air force officers backing Vargas were arrested in Guayaquil, Ecuador's main seaport.
Febres Cordero, godfather of the youngest of Vargas' 10 children, had earlier declared a nationwide state of emergency, suspending most civil rights, shutting down several radio stations and closing the international airport in Quito, the capital. The airport and Mariscal Sucre Air Base share the same runway.
The president, a conservative who has dealt harshly with his critics, and his Cabinet were at the National Palace, which was surrounded with barbed wire.
Fired From Posts March 7
Vargas' rebellion began March 7 after he was fired from his dual posts as chief of staff and air force commander by Defense Minister Gen. Luis Pineiros for accusing army commander Gen. Manuel Albuja of misusing Defense Department funds.
The 52-year-old general, popular with his troops because of his compassionate nature and with civilians because of his flamboyance, seized Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta, on the Pacific coast 150 miles west of Quito, and held it for four days demanding the resignations of Pineiros and Albuja.
Vargas surrendered in triumph Tuesday night after the two generals agreed to step down to avoid a confrontation, and he was placed under house arrest at Mariscal Sucre pending a court-martial for insubordination.
But complaining that the government had reneged on an agreement to arrest the two generals, Vargas broke out of house arrest and seized Mariscal Sucre on Thursday afternoon, vowing that he would not leave the base alive.