Ecuador's embattled President Jamil Mahuad abandoned the presidential palace tonight for a more secure location amid an apparent military coup. A government minister said that he was escorted to a safer place by troops. Earlier, Ecuadorian military leaders said that they were withdrawing their support from the president amid popular protests demanding his resignation.

However, Mr Mahuad immediately rejected the call for him to resign, denouncing what he called a coup d'état by the military. The move came after indigenous protesters stormed the National Congress and announced the formation of a new government. The White House this evening called for respect for the constitutional order in Ecuador.

After a week of anti-government protests in the capital, a group of 1,500 indigenous demonstrators and a handful of soldiers penetrated a cordon of security force members and entered the chamber of Ecuador's legislature. Inside, they declared a new government headed by Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who had joined the demonstrators. Another 10,000 protesters surrounded the building outside.

In a statement televised from inside, Colonel Gutierrez urged "the honourable people of Ecuador" to join "the struggle to save this beautiful country." The group also designated Antonio Vargas, of the Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities, as the leader of Congress and lawyer Carlos Solorzano as Chief of the Supreme Court.

Vargas proclaimed victory and said that they knew the military was with them. However, the first army division commander General Carlos Moncayo initially said that the armed forces did not support any movement. The general issued a statement saying that the armed forces and police defend and respect the democratic system loyal to that, which is established by the constitution. However, they later changed their position.

Workers and students were marching in Quito streets carrying Ecuadorian flags and CONAIE banners, as shop owners locked their doors and public transportation ground to a halt. Protesters reportedly occupied local parliament buildings in the southern cities of Guayaquil and Cuenca and streets at the centre of those cities were filled with people chanting slogans against Mahuad's government.

Thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians and their supporters, organised by CONAIE, have been demonstrating in Quito for six days. They are demanding the dissolution of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, and the formation of a "national salvation government" that would include members of the military as well as religious and civic leaders. President Mahuad has faced protests by trade unions and students as well as indigenous groups.

Ecuador is in the throes of a deep recession, with the economy having contracted seven percent and inflation at 60.7 percent. Ecuador's various indigenous groups make up 30 percent of the country's 12.5 million population and constitute the country's poorest communities.