Friday, January 12, 2007

Deadly clashes part of Bolivian power struggle

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) -- Violent protests over a Bolivian state governor's call for more local autonomy killed two and injured more than 60 while playing out a larger power struggle between President Evo Morales and the country's opposition-controlled state governments.
Bolivian military officials estimated the two rival factions together totaling 30,000 demonstrators -- most armed with sticks, rocks, baseball bats and machetes, and a small few carrying handguns -- overran police Thursday in the streets of Cochabamba during the fourth straight day of protests.
Authorities claimed a force of 1,500 soldiers has been dispatched to the city to restore order. But the downtown streets were deserted late Thursday night, empty of both protesters and soldiers.
Pro-Morales protesters have for four days packed the streets and plazas of Cochabamba, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of La Paz, to demand the resignation of Cochabamba state Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa for his opposition to the president.
But on Thursday a counterprotest in support of Reyes met the demonstrators head on. Images of the two sides beating each other with sticks in Cochabamba's picturesque plazas were broadcast on national television.
The battle took place on a day when Reyes, a former presidential candidate widely considered to still harbor national ambitions, had traveled to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, for a summit with four other governors to develop a political strategy in opposition to Morales.
Morales' efforts to expand his executive power and maintain a tight grip on an assembly rewriting the Bolivian Constitution have incensed the opposition governors who head six of nine Bolivian states, many of which have long sought greater leeway from the central government.
Last month Reyes joined the autonomy movement, calling for Cochabamba to hold a second vote on a referendum giving the states greater power.
The referendum was defeated in a nationwide election in July. Cochabamba, in the Andean foothills at the center of the country, had joined four western highland states in rejecting the measure, while Bolivia's four eastern lowland states favored it.
Tensions between Morales and opposition governors have heightened in recent weeks, with Morales proposing to sending deputies from La Paz to monitor the state governments' activities. Opposition governors immediately threatened to send their own delegations to keep a closer eye on Morales.
Reyes blamed Morales for not reacting more forcefully to protests earlier in the week.
"Cochabamba has paid for the irresponsibility of the Bolivian government, which could have resolved this but waited for tragedy," the governor said late Thursday.
Hundreds of Pro-Morales protesters surrounded the La Paz hotel Thursday night where the governors were meeting.
The president was speeding his return from Nicaragua after attending the inauguration of fellow leftist President Daniel Ortega.
In a televised message Thursday night, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera confirmed two deaths in the unrest, an opposition protester and a government supporter. There were 68 injured, he said, mostly from sticks and rocks but also from gunshot wounds.
The vice president said Reyes abandoned his state during a crisis.
"He left Cochabamba despite the severity of the conflict and came to La Paz to play politics, to conspire against the government, to prepare more demonstrations," Garcia Linera said. "The duty of the governor is to be with his people, back there in Cochabamba, seeking peace, seeking solutions."
Reyes' critiques of Morales have not been popular in Cochabamba, the president's home state. Thousands of coca growers -- many members of Bolivia's largest coca growers' union, of which Morales still serves as president -- have gone to the capital from the countryside to call for his resignation.
Protesters continued Thursday to blockade highways leading in and out of Cochabamba, while Reyes repeated vows not to resign.
On Monday, state police tear-gassed anti-Reyes protesters gathered in front of the capitol, and minister in Morales' government immediately suspended the state police commander for the harsh response.
But later in the day the protesters set fire to the heavy wooden doors of the state's historic capitol and took control of its first floor offices as the blaze spread, charring furniture and destroying some government records.
Local media reported at least 22 injured in Monday's protests.
Retrieved from CNN.com

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