Bolivian leader tries to assert control

Blockades, violent strife grip nation

Policemen stood guard outside a store in Cobija, the capital of the Pando province, owed by a cousin of Bolivian President Evo Morales that was destroyed by opponents to his government. Policemen stood guard outside a store in Cobija, the capital of the Pando province, owed by a cousin of Bolivian President Evo Morales that was destroyed by opponents to his government. (Reuters)
By Vicente L. Panetta
Associated Press / September 15, 2008
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LA PAZ, Bolivia - President Evo Morales struggled to assert control over a badly fractured Bolivia yesterday as protesters set fire to a town hall and blockaded highways in opposition-controlled provinces, impeding gasoline and food distribution.

At least 30 people have been killed in the poor Andean nation this past week, Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said. All the deaths occurred in Pando province, where Morales declared martial law on Friday, dispatching troops and accusing government foes of killing his supporters.

Pando's security chief, Alberto Murakami, said by telephone that 15 people had died and 55 were injured.

Presidency Minister Juan Ramon Quintana told local radio Red Erbol that authorities had arrested Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernandez, "for violating the constitution and generating the bloody killings of the peasants." Morales has accused Fernandez of using Peruvian and Brazilian "assassins" against Morales supporters.

But Pando officials insisted Fernandez was still free, and Quintana later clarified on Red Erbol that while the governor "should be put in jail for blatant crimes," he had not been detained.

Fernandez did not make any comments yesterday, but he was seen walking through the streets of Pando's capital, Cobija, where government troops continued to arrive and patrol.

The governor has denied having anything to do with the violence, saying it was not an ambush but rather an armed clash between rival groups.

Presidential spokesman Ivan Canelas said without providing details that opposition-led highway blockades continued Sunday and that "an armed group" had set fire to the town hall in Filadelfia, a municipality near Cobija.

"There are people who want to continue sowing pain across the region," he said.

The newspaper La Razon quoted the country's highways chief as saying blockades had halted transit on major roadways in the opposition-governed eastern provinces of Tarija, Beni and Santa Cruz. AP could not immediately confirm the report.

The gravest challenge to Morales in his nearly 3-year-old tenure as Bolivia's first indigenous president stems from his struggle with the four eastern lowland provinces where Bolivia's natural gas riches are concentrated and where his government has essentially lost control.

The provinces are seeking greater autonomy from Morales's leftist government and are insisting he cancel a Dec. 7 referendum on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term, and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants. Morales says the new charter is needed to empower Bolivia's indigenous majority.

The leaders of those provinces have designated the governor of gas-rich Tarija, Mario Cossio, as their representative and he was expected to arrive in La Paz yesterday to resume talks on easing the crisis.

Cossio said that his half of the country was paralyzed by 35 highway blockades. "Also paralyzed are borders with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay," he added.

South America's leaders were also trying to prevent Bolivia from splintering. They were to gather in Chile today for an emergency meeting called by President Michelle Bachelet. It was unclear whether Morales would attend, and President Alan Garcia of Peru was not expected.

Morales's representative in Pando, Nancy Texeira, said the death toll from Thursday's fighting between pro- and anti-Morales forces near the town of Porvenir was expected to rise as authorities continued to encounter more dead and wounded.

"We think there are more in the hills, people submerged in the river," she said.

Morales and ally President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela expelled the US ambassadors in their countries last week to protest what they called Washington's inciting of the antigovernment protests.

The departing US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, denied the accusations yesterday in his first public comments on the matter.

"I would like to say that all the accusations made against me, against the embassy and against my nation are completely false and unjustified," he told reporters. "I have nothing to say to those who misinterpreted my actions."

Morales has offered no detailed evidence of Goldberg's alleged conspiracy with the opposition. He has, instead, accused Goldberg of egging on anti-Morales forces through meetings with governors who have publicly called for the president's ouster.

Chávez, meanwhile, insisted he would intervene militarily in Bolivia if Morales were toppled or killed. He accused Bolivia's military brass of not fully supporting their president, of "a work stoppage of sorts."

Bolivian armed forces chief General Luis Trigo earlier in the week rejected Chávez's pledge to intervene, saying no foreign troops would be permitted to set foot on Bolivian soil.

Yesterday, Defense Minister Walker San Miguel backed his armed forces chief. "We Bolivians will resolve our problems among ourselves," he said.

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