RIMANEWS-Paraguay's Congress moved to impeach leftist President Fernando Lugo on Thursday over charges that he mishandled a land eviction in which 17 police and peasant farmers were killed last week, and the Senate will decide his fate on Friday.
As political allies deserted him, the president refused to resign and vowed to defend himself in a trial in the Senate on Friday afternoon that could result in his removal from office.
Paraguay's lower house of Congress agreed in a swift, near-unanimous vote on Thursday to start impeachment proceedings. The Senate later agreed on impeachment rules and will decide on Friday at 4.30 p.m. (2030 GMT) whether to oust the president.
"This president announces that he is not going to present his resignation and that he will fully respect the constitution and the law to face the impeachment trial and its full consequences," Lugo said in a televised address. "There is no valid cause - neither legal nor political - to make me resign."
If convicted on Friday by the Senate of the charge of failing to fulfill his duties by allowing social conflicts to escalate, Lugo would be removed from office.
Some critics accuse Lugo of being sympathetic to the peasant farmers who ambushed the police officers when they went to enforce an eviction order on a farm in the rural northeast.
"After the decisiveness in the lower house, and bearing in mind that the same parties are represented in the Senate, I see no reason why we shouldn't see strong support for the impeachment," said center-right Sen. Marcelo Duarte.
Under Paraguay's constitution, an impeached leader is replaced by the vice president, who completes the presidential term. The next presidential election is in 2013 and Lugo's vice president Federico Franco - who has been a fierce critic of Lugo - is expected to run for office.
Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop elected four years ago on pledges to champion the needs of the poor in the landlocked, soy-exporting nation, has struggled to carry out his reform agenda due to the opposition's grip on Congress.
Lugo, a mild-mannered leftist whose term ends in 2013, has battled and overcome cancer during his presidency and admitted fathering two children when he was still a practicing bishop.
Scuffles broke out in the central square of the sleepy capital of Asuncion where hundreds of pro- and anti-government demonstrators gathered over the impeachment news.
"They need to listen to the people too. I don't think this impeachment is the way to go forward, I don't think it's necessary," said teacher Amalia Allende, 40, as she sobbed in the square, carrying the red, white and blue national flag.
Paraguay has been plagued by political instability and is known regionally for its marijuana crops and as a hub for smuggling and money laundering.
Regional governments called for stability and democracy to be respected. The UNASUR group of South American nations said it would send a delegation of foreign ministers to Asuncion on Thursday.
"We'll be there to ensure democratic legitimacy isn't breached," Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said. "Some things are legal but not legitimate."
Officials in neighboring powerhouse Brazil were following events with "close attention (and) concern," a source said.
In a major blow for Lugo, Vice President Franco's Liberal Party withdrew its support for him on Thursday and ordered its four cabinet ministers to quit. That cleared the way for the impeachment push.
Lugo's Liberal allies were angered by his decision to replace the interior minister with a former state prosecutor linked to the rightist Colorado Party after last week's bloodshed.
Six police officers and 11 peasant farmers were killed in armed clashes during last Friday's land eviction in one of the worst such incidents in the country for two decades.
Lugo said on Wednesday that he would establish a committee to investigate the killings, but this pledge failed to ease intense pressure over the police handling of the operation.
"Lugo has plunged the country into chaos with a total absence of leadership to resolve Paraguay's problems," said Fernando Moreno, 35, a Liberal Party supporter demonstrating in front of Congress.[ach/reuters]