Senior Officials at Petroecuador Removed

Friday Ecuador's President Lucio Gutierrez ordered some senior officials removed at oil company Petroecuador and other state companies in a surprise decision aimed at reducing patronage politics.

"I have ordered the Energy Minister, the president of Petroecuador and the manager of the Solidarity Fund to turn over the vice presidencies of their institutions," Gutierrez said at a military ceremony marking a key historic battle.

"Ecuadoreans, we are going to depoliticize our state companies and make them more professional. Inefficiency, corruption and petty politics must come to an end," he said.

The decision comes as Ecuador aims to award contracts for four major state oil fields to private companies in a bid scheduled for March 23. The fields, located in the crude-rich Amazon, have a total of 905 million barrels in reserves.

It also comes after the government's Solidarity Fund failed in efforts to turn over the state electric and telephone companies it owns to a private manager under the country's $205 million International Monetary Fund loan program.

Gutierrez, who also announced plans to hire new customs inspectors to stamp out evasion, has faced criticism that too many relatives and friends from his days as an acting army colonel hold important posts in his government.

Energy Minister Carlos Arboleda told reporters about 20 officials were removed from their posts including the managers of areas such as trade and finance. He said the government would hire an executive search specialist to replace them.

Petroecuador produces about 200,000 barrels of crude per day, which accounts for about 40 percent of the country's output. Oil is Ecuador's biggest export.