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Ecuador assembly begins impeachment hearing against President Lasso

FILE PHOTO: Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso speaks during a press conference

By Alexandra Valencia

QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador's National Assembly on Tuesday began an impeachment hearing against President Guillermo Lasso, who could be removed from his post, though the process increases the likelihood he will dissolve the legislature to avoid a final vote.

Ninety-two votes from the 137-member assembly are needed to remove Lasso, who opposition politicians say disregarded warnings of embezzlement related to a contract at state-owned oil transportation company Flopec.

Lasso denies the accusation, saying his administration made changes to the contract signed years before he took office. in order to benefit the state, on advice from Ecuador's comptroller.

"They've created a fictitious situation that doesn't solve the problems of the country or anyone else," Lasso said while making his defense, referring to his opponents.

"The same rancor they profess against me is the greatest proof of my innocence," he added.

The opposition, including members of the party of ex-President Rafael Correa - himself accused of corruption - has been invigorated following the re-election of Virgilio Saquicela as president of the National Assembly on Sunday.

To avoid impeachment, Lasso could call for the so-called "two-way death," a constitutional quirk that allows Ecuadorean presidents to call early elections for both their office and the National Assembly under certain circumstances, such as when the legislature blocks the functioning of government.

"That option has always been under consideration and it's available, and the decision is up to the president," Juan Pablo Ortiz, legal secretary of the presidency, told a local digital media outlet on Monday.

If Lasso is removed from office he will be replaced by Vice President Alfredo Borrero.

If Lasso instead opts to dissolve the assembly, he will govern with laws issued via decree until new elections are called, according to Ecuador's constitution.

Hundreds of Lasso's supporters took to the streets surrounding the assembly.

CONAIE, Ecuador's largest indigenous organization, backed the measure to remove Lasso in a statement, saying that "with Guillermo Lasso Ecuador doesn't have a future, only fear and uncertainty."

Ecuador's electoral court must decide on a date for new elections within seven days of the assembly's dissolution.

The assembly voted to continue with the impeachment process last Tuesday with 88 votes in favor out of 116 legislators present.

Some lawmakers have said any dissolution would be unconstitutional and would refuse to comply. The government and its allies have questioned the legality of the impeachment process.

(Reporting by Alexandra ValenciaWriting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Aurora Ellis and David Gregorio)