Paraguay's Congress removed President Fernando Lugo from office on Friday after a lightning-quick impeachment that he said was tantamount to a coup but pledged to accept.
Lugo, a silver-haired former Roman Catholic bishop who quit the Church to run for president, was found guilty of mishandling armed clashes over a land eviction in which 17 police and peasant farmers were killed last week.
Lugo's election four years ago on promises he would champion the needs of poor Paraguayans raised high hopes in the landlocked, soy-exporting nation, but his reform agenda stalled due to the opposition's grip on Congress.
Political allies deserted him as criticism mounted over last week's bloodshed in the rural northeast, and the Senate voted 39-4 to oust him on Friday, a day after the lower house set the impeachment proceedings in motion.
"Although the law's been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I accept Congress' decision," Lugo said in a sober address on national television, calling for calm among his supporters.
"Paraguay's history has been profoundly wounded," he said, moments before his centrist vice president and political opponent, Federico Franco, was sworn in to complete the last year of his presidency.
Several thousand Lugo supporters gathered outside Congress in the sleepy riverside capital, Asuncion, and tried to break through police lines as the verdict was given.
Police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The plaza later emptied out.
The unprecedented speed of the impeachment trial raised concerns among other governments in the region. The leftist presidents of Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador announced they would not recognize Franco's government.
"What has happened is absolutely illegitimate," Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told local television.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said her country would not "validate the coup" in Paraguay. She also said she was working with Brazil and Uruguay - partners in the Mercosur trade bloc, along with Paraguay - to respond jointly.
Some critics of Lugo's removal have compared it to the ousting of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 by that country's army, which acted on a court order that had backing from Congress.
Franco named a new foreign minister and charged him with explaining to governments elsewhere in South America that the impeachment drive was constitutional, albeit "a little quick."
Lugo, 61, vowed to improve the quality of life of low-income Paraguayans when his election ended six decades of rule by the Colorado party in one of South America's poorest and most politically unstable countries.
Paraguay is known regionally for its marijuana crops and as a hub for smuggling and money laundering.
Lugo's backers hoped he would tackle rampant corruption and gaping income inequalities in the nation of 6 million people. He struggled, however, to push reforms including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers through Congress.
A cancer scare and several paternity scandals added to his difficulties and he lost support inside his ruling coalition, culminating in the Liberal Party's decision to turn against him and clear the way for his impeachment.
LIBERAL PARTY DOCTOR TAKES OFFICE
Franco, a doctor and longtime Liberal Party politician, will run the country until a newly elected president takes office in August 2013.
Franco's relationship with Lugo turned sour soon after their alliance defeated the Colorados in the last election.
"This transition that we've started today is within constitutional order and in absolute respect of the law and international treaties," the 49-year-old Franco said as he was sworn in. "In no way does it put universal democratic principals at risk."
Paraguay's constitution only allows one presidential term, so Lugo would have stepped down in just over a year.
Re-election has been banned since the constitution was overhauled following the 1989 fall of General Alfredo Stroessner's brutal 35-year dictatorship.
Some critics accuse Lugo of sympathizing with the peasant farmers who ambushed police officers last week when they went to enforce an eviction order on a farm.
Legislators also accused Lugo of acting meekly to fight a small, violent left-wing group called the Paraguayan People's Army, known by its Spanish initials EPP.
Church leaders urged him to step down to ease tensions, but Lugo said he would face the impeachment rather than resign.
"This is an 'express' coup because (lawmakers) have done it in the wee hours of the night," he said on Thursday.
The last time a Paraguayan leader was impeached was in 1999 when Raul Cubas was accused of failing to fulfill his duties following the murder of the vice president and the killing of seven protesters. Cubas resigned before a verdict was reached.
(Additional reporting by Didier Cristaldo in Asuncion, Lauren French and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Hugo Bachega in Rio de Janeiro and Hilary Burke and Magdalena Morales in Buenos Aires; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Kieran Murray, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)