The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Ecuador council rejects petitions seeking referendum to halt oil drilling in Amazon reserve

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QUITO, Ecuador - Ecuador's electoral council on Tuesday rejected as insufficient a petition drive calling for voters to decide whether to proceed with oil drilling in a pristine Amazon nature reserve as planned by President Rafael Correa.

The council's announcement that not enough signatures were collected was met with cries of fraud by the drive's organizers. Correa has largely consolidated control over state institutions during seven years in power.

The council approved just 359,781 of the 850,000 signatures collected. That is well under the 583,323 signatures needed to force a referendum.

It's not yet clear when drilling would begin in the Yasuni reserve, which holds an estimated 843 million barrels of oil worth about $18 billion. Ecuador is an OPEC nation and Correa depends heavily on oil revenues for social spending that has aided his popularity.

Correa tried for six years to get rich countries to pay Ecuador not to drill in the preserve. His campaign was novel but failed to attract sufficient donors. Governments complained about a lack of guarantees.

"We don't have any other option," Correa said last year when he abandoned the effort. "We need money to overcome poverty."

The electoral council's president, Domingo Paredes, said at a news conference that petitioners didn't follow instructions and that many signatures were fake or duplicates.

The spokesman for the petition drive organizers, Patricio Chavez, demanded that the electoral council publish the annulled signatures.

"This is without precedent. This is fraud, a clear fraud. There is no precedence on a global scale," he said. "We have a copy of everything we turned over and before turning it over we did a verification to prevent any problems."

The organizers promised a new push for a referendum.

In a story published before Tuesday decision, the state-run newspaper El Telegrafo said an opinion poll indicated 72 per cent of Ecuadorans supporting holding a referendum on the oil project.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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