Gunmen take over live TV broadcast in Ecuador, Prez declares 'internal armed conflict'

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Quti, January 10 (IANS) A group of gunmen broke into a live television studio in Ecuador and threatened the terrified staff, prompting President Daniel Noboa to declare an "internal armed conflict" and mobilise the army to “neutralise” several criminal groups accused of spreading extreme violence.

On Tuesday, hooded and armed suspects broke into the local "TC Television" station in the southwest coastal city of Guayaquil and terrorised the staff while they were on the air, sending shock waves through the country, reports Xinhua news agency.

Viewers watched as the events unfolded live, witnessing the gunmen point their weapons at the station employees as they remained lying on the floor, visibly shaken by what was happening.

Amid the chaos, a series of gunshots rang out as employees pleaded for the shooting to stop.

After a burst of gunfire, the broadcast abruptly went off the air.

The National Police posted to social media platform X that "given the entry of criminals into the facilities of a media outlet in Guayaquil, our specialized units are being deployed at the scene to address this emergency".

Later, the police said the armed men freed all the staff and made 13 arrests, and also recovered at least four firearms, two grenades, and “explosive material”.

Hours after the incident, President Daniel Noboa announced that he "signed the executive decree declaring Internal Armed Conflict".

According to a document posted on social media, Noboa called on the armed forces to carry out military operations, under international humanitarian law and with respect for human rights, to fight transnational criminal organistions operating in Ecuador.

He ordered the deployment of troops and police officers throughout the country to guarantee sovereignty and territorial integrity against transnational organized crime.

The decree identified the following criminal rings as terrorist organisations and belligerent non-state actors: "Aguilas, AguilasKiller, Ak47, Caballeros Oscuros, ChoneKiller, Choneros, Corvicheros, Cuartel de las Feas, Cubanos, Fatales, Ganster, Kater Piler, Lagartos, Latin Kings, Los Lobos, Los p.27, Los Tiburones, Mafia 18, Mafia Trebol, Patrones, R7 and Tiguerones."

The list is to be updated, the document added.

Ecuador's government declared a 60-day state of emergency on Monday with a night-time curfew to quell violence in cities and inside prisons.

Tuesday's measure followed a day of riots and disturbances at several prisons, including a prison-break that saw 39 inmates escape from a facility in the Andean city of Riobamba.

According to Riobamba Mayor John Vinueza, the prison-break occurred on Monday night during a riot at the facility, where detonations of explosives were heard.

"In the process, 39 escaped ... of which, according to the information I receive, 12 have been recaptured," he told local media.

Citing a police report, local media said the inmates escaped at around 10.45 p.m. on Monday night through a prison sentry box while the facility was embroiled in the riot.

Among the escapees is Fabricio Colon Pico, a criminal linked to the "Los Lobos" criminal organisation who is suspected of planning an attack against the national attorney general, Diana Salazar.

Colon's escape came just as authorities were planning to transfer him to another prison.

At least 10 people have been killed since the 60-day state of emergency began on Monday.

As a result of the violence, declared an emergency along its northern border with Ecuador due to a surge of violence caused by criminal gangs in the neighboring country.

On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Alberto Otarola announced that the emergency declaration would deploy an unspecified number of army troops to support police forces.

Peruvian President Dina Boluarte also called an emergency meeting earlier on Tuesday to take urgent measures to prevent thugs who escaped from Ecuador's prisons from entering her country.

The latest development come as Ecuador has witnessed a recent spike in violent crime.

Ecuador, a country of approximately 17.5 million people, recorded nearly 3,568 violent deaths from the beginning of 2023 until July, which was an increase of 75 pe rcent over the same period the year prior.

The South American nation also shattered records for homicides in 2022, cataloguing a total of 4,603 violent deaths.

According to statistics released by the national police, that amounted to nearly 12.6 murders per day.

Presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was also assassinated just ahead of the August 20, 2023 general election, which led to then President Guillermo Lasso to declare a national state of emergency on August 10 for 60 days.