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Fired Ecuador justices are barred from offices

QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuadorean police barred Supreme Court judges from returning to their offices yesterday after the judges tried to defy a decision by Congress to fire them for bias against President Lucio Gutierrez.

Fifty-two members of the 100-seat Congress voted late Wednesday to replace all 31 Supreme Court justices in a session called by Gutierrez, who is consolidating power after a bid to oust him narrowly failed in November.

Several judges, including Supreme Court President Hugo Quintana, holed up in their offices and only left when police fired tear gas at a few dozen antigovernment protesters on the street outside.

It was not clear whether police forced them to leave but local television showed officers barring the way to judges who tried to reenter the building.

"We have decided to ignore Congress' resolution, because it is obviously unconstitutional and illegal," Quintana said earlier.

Gutierrez said judges favored opposition parties. A former army colonel who led a coup attempt in 2000, he was elected in 2002 with support from the poor and Indians but has disappointed followers with austere economic policies.

Congress named Supreme Court replacements linked to political parties that opposed the attempt to impeach the president over accusations he misused public funds during a local election.

Legal workers said they would go on strike and about 10 protesters holed up in the Andean mountain city's colonial cathedral opposite the presidential palace.

The opposition said the 1998 constitution did not allow Congress to remove the judges by a simple majority vote, but the government argued the justices were appointed before 1998.

"This is a historic day," Gutierrez told local radio, announcing the end of what he called the dictatorship of the powerful Social Christian Party, which is the largest party in Congress with 23 legislators.

The new court, which he said reflected various political factions, would be temporary until a constitutional reform next year, he said.

The president won office employing left-wing rhetoric, which he then dropped for orthodox economic policies and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. He has lost support among the poor and Indians even though the government expects the oil-exporting country's economy to grow 5.9 percent this year as it recovers from a financial crisis and debt default in 1999.

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