By Daniela Desantis and Guido Nejamkis
ASUNCION (Reuters) - Argentina withdrew its ambassador from Paraguay on Saturday in response to an impeachment trial that removed Paraguay's president from office in two days, prompting criticism in the region and beyond.
Argentina's Foreign Ministry said it ordered the ambassador's immediate withdrawal from the capital Asuncion in response to "the grave institutional events ... that culminated in the removal of constitutional President Fernando Lugo and the rupture of democratic order."
The move came a day after Argentine President Cristina Fernandez described Lugo's ouster as a coup. Argentina was the first nation to take concrete action against its neighbor over Lugo's impeachment.
Federico Franco, Paraguay's former vice president, was sworn in on Friday after Congress voted overwhelmingly to remove Lugo from office, saying he had failed to fulfill his duties to maintain social harmony.
Lugo's ouster was sparked by clashes over a land eviction that killed 17 police and peasant farmers a week earlier. He was a year away from completing a five-year term.
The trial's unprecedented speed raised concerns throughout the hemisphere. Leftist leaders in Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador said they would not recognize the new administration and vowed to lobby for sanctions against Paraguay.
Fernandez had warned previously that measures could be adopted against Paraguay within the Mercosur trade bloc, which groups neighbors Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
In theory, Paraguay could face suspension by Mercosur for violating the group's democratic principles. Brazil's foreign minister said leaders would discuss the situation next week at a Mercosur summit in Argentina.
Franco said on Saturday he believed South American leaders would come to see the legitimacy of the impeachment process, which Lugo ultimately chose to respect.
"We will make contact with neighboring countries and I'm sure they will comprehend the situation in Paraguay," Franco told a news conference in the presidential palace on Saturday.
"At no time was there a rupture or a coup, there was simply a change of leadership in line with the constitution and the country's laws," said Franco, a 49-year-old doctor whose Liberal Party broke ranks with Lugo, paving the way for his removal.
Lugo decried his impeachment but said on Friday he accepted the decision of Congress and stepped down. The silver-haired former Catholic bishop has been holed up at home ever since.
Asuncion felt oddly normal on Saturday, with businesses opening as usual and few police officers patrolling the streets a day after they clashed briefly with protesters outside the congressional building.
Paraguay is one of South America's poorest countries and it has a long history of political instability and military rule.
On Thursday, the UNASUR group of South American nations sent a delegation of foreign ministers to Asuncion to try to avert a quick condemnation of Lugo, arguing that he needed time to defend himself.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said UNASUR could meet in the coming week to discuss Paraguay.
Regional heavyweight Brazil, a strategic ally to Paraguay, said it will not respond unilaterally and will seek consensus within UNASUR.
Franco took care to say his new foreign minister will contact Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, another leftist leader in the region.
(Additional reporting by Didier Cristaldo in Asuncion, Tiago Pariz in Brasilia, Omar Mariluz in Lima, Armando Tovar in Mexico City and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Paul Simao)