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By Daniela Desantis
ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo vowed on Thursday to stand and fight rather than resign after his opponents launched an impeachment drive over a land eviction in which 17 people died last week.
Paraguay's lower house of Congress approved Lugo's impeachment on Thursday and the Senate, which is also controlled by his opponents, was likely to follow suit.
Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop elected four years ago on pledges to champion the needs of the poor in the landlocked, soy-exporting nation, has struggled to carry out his reform agenda due to the opposition's grip on Congress.
The mild-mannered leftist has been under intense pressure over last week's bloodshed, which took place after police were ambushed by armed peasant farmers when they went to enforce an eviction order on a farm in the rural northeast.
Lugo vowed to face any charges levelled by Congress, which would investigate whether he had failed to fulfil his duties by allowing a social conflict to escalate. He would be removed from office if convicted.
"This president announces that he is not going to present his resignation and that he will fully respect the constitution and the law to face the impeachment trial and its full consequences," he said in a televised address.
"There is no valid cause - neither legal nor political - to make me resign," he added.
Lugo has battled and overcome cancer during his presidency and admitted fathering two children when he was still a practicing bishop. He is due to finish his term in 2013 and the constitution does not allow re-election.
Hundreds of pro- and anti-government demonstrators gathered in a central square in the sleepy capital, Asuncion, and several scuffles broke out.
The UNASUR group of South American nations said it would send a delegation of foreign ministers to Asuncion on Thursday.
"We'll be there to ensure democratic legitimacy isn't broken," Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said. "Some things are legal but not legitimate."
Officials in neighbouring powerhouse Brazil were following events with "close attention (and) concern," a source said.
The lower house voted to impeach Lugo in a swift, near-unanimous vote. The proceedings will now pass to the Senate.
"After the decisiveness in the lower house, and bearing in mind that the same parties are represented in the Senate, I see no reason why we shouldn't see strong support for the impeachment," said centre-right Sen. Marcelo Duarte.
It was not immediately clear when the upper house would meet to vote on the impeachment or how long Lugo would be given to defend himself.
Under Paraguay's constitution, an impeached president is replaced by the vice president, who completes his original term. The next presidential election is in 2013.
Lugo's vice president, Federico Franco, is expected to run for the presidency in next year's ballot.
Franco has been a fierce critic of the president and hails from the Liberal Party, which withdrew its support from Lugo on Thursday and ordered its four cabinet ministers to quit. That cleared the way for the impeachment effort.
"The Liberal Party carries no political responsibility for Lugo's government," said party president Blas Llano.
Lugo's Liberal Party allies were angered by the president's decision to replace the interior minister with a former state prosecutor linked to the rightist Colorado Party following last week's bloodshed.
Six police officers and 11 peasant farmers were killed in armed clashes during last Friday's land eviction, marking one of the worst such incidents in the country for two decades.
Lugo said on Wednesday that he would establish a committee to investigate the killings, but this pledge failed to ease intense pressure over the police handling of the operation.
(Additional reporting by Hugo Bachega in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Jim Loney)
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