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Businesses, unions assail Ecuador austerity package

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QUITO, Ecuador -- Business leaders and leftist-led unions assailed the president's emergency economic package Friday, saying it was crippling Ecuador as the country tries to overcome its worst fiscal crisis in decades.

On Thursday, President Jamil Mahuad doubled the price of gasoline, proposed raising taxes and ordered banks to remain shut for a fifth straight day to give the government time to implement the tough austerity program.The conservative Social Christian Party, which has supported some of Mahuad's policies since he took office last year, now finds itself opposed to many reforms. Party leaders will meet this weekend to decide on a response.

Ecuador is mired in its worst economic crisis in recent decades, hammered by $2.6 billion in damage from El Nino-powered floods last year and low prices for oil, its main export.

Rumors of an impending financial meltdown in the poor Andean nation led to massive bank withdrawals last week and caused the national currency, the sucre, to lose a quarter of its value.

Shortly before Mahuad announced his measures, Central Bank President Luis Jacome and three of four members of the bank's board of directors resigned. On Friday, they said they took the action because of "political and economic differences" with the government. Mahuad has not yet named replacements.

The resignations came at the end of a nationwide two-day strike, which turned violent at times. Some 235 people were arrested and 19 were injured in street clashes.