Armed men storm An Ecuador TV Studio During A Live Broadcast As Attacks In The Country Escalate

(AP) — Masked men broke onto the set of a public television channel in Ecuador waving guns and explosives during a live broadcast Tuesday, and the president issued a decree declaring that the violence-plagued country had entered an “internal armed conflict.”

The men armed with pistols and what looked like sticks of dynamite entered the set of the TC Television network in the port city of Guayaquil during a news program that was airing live in thousands of homes across the nation and shouted that they had bombs. Noises similar to gunshots could be heard.

No one was killed in the attack, and authorities later said that all the masked intruders had been arrested, 13 in all, and would be charged with terrorism.

Authorities have not said who was behind the television station occupation, or a series of other attacks that have shaken the South American country recently, but they follow the apparent escapes from prison of two of Ecuador’s most powerful drug gang leaders.

Alina Manrique, the head of news for TC Television, said she was in the control room at TC Television, across from the studio, when the masked men burst into the building. One of them pointed a gun at her head and told her to get on the floor, Manrique said.

The incident was aired live, although the station’s signal was cut off after about 15 minutes. Manrique said some of the assailants ran from the studio and tried to hide when they realised they were surrounded by police.

“I am still in shock” Manrique told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “Everything has collapsed …. All I know is that it’s time to leave this country and go very far away.”

Ecuador has been rocked by a series of attacks, including the abductions of several police officers, in the wake of a notorious gang leader’s apparent weekend escape from prison. President Daniel Noboa on Monday declared a national state of emergency, a measure that lets authorities suspend people’s rights and mobilise the military in places like prisons.

Shortly after the gunmen stormed the TV station, Noboa issued another decree designating 20 drug trafficking gangs operating in the country as terrorist groups and authorising Ecuador’s military to “neutralise” them within the bounds of international humanitarian law. It also said the country had entered an internal armed conflict.

Ecuador’s attorney general’s office said the 13 people arrested will be charged with terrorism. It tweeted that it will present the charges in coming hours. Ecuadorian law establishes a penalty of up to 13 years in prison for anyone convicted of terrorism.

The government has not said how many attacks have taken place since authorities announced that Los Choneros gang leader Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” was discovered missing from his cell in a low security prison Sunday. He was scheduled to be transferred to a maximum security facility that day.

On Tuesday, Ecuadorean officials announced that another gang leader, Fabricio Colón Pico of the Los Lobos group, had escaped from a prison in the town of Riobamba. Colón Pico was captured on Friday as part of a kidnapping investigation and has also been accused of trying to murder one of the nation’s lead prosecutors.

Other attacks have included an explosion near the house of the president of the National Justice Court and the Monday night kidnappings of four police officers. Police said one officer was abducted in the capital, Quito, and three in Quevedo city.