Bolivian governor arrested; Peace Corps volunteers evacuated

By Dan Keane
Associated Press / September 17, 2008
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LA PAZ, Bolivia - Soldiers arrested an opposition governor yesterday on suspicion of directing a massacre of government supporters, as Bolivia's political crisis prompted the United States to evacuate its Peace Corps volunteers.

Violent protests against President Evo Morales have swept Bolivia's eastern lowlands, where opposition-controlled provinces are demanding a larger share of the country's natural gas wealth and trying to block his attempts to direct resources to the long-suffering indigenous majority.

The arrest of Leopoldo Fernandez, governor of the remote Amazonian province of Pando, abruptly ended efforts by the president and opposition leaders to talk about compromises after anti-Morales protesters ransacked government offices in Pando and three other eastern provinces last week.

Eastern Bolivia has long resisted Morales's sweeping socialist reforms, battling him over the distribution of natural gas revenues and a plan to redistribute fallow land to the poor.

Last week's protests targeted a referendum on a proposed constitution that among other changes would let Morales run for reelection.

Morales said Fernandez was arrested on charges of genocide for allegedly organizing an armed ambush of his supporters.

At least 15 were killed, 37 were injured and about 100 were still unaccounted for yesterday, raising fears that the death toll could rise.

Morales sent troops to Pando to enforce martial law.

Morales has accused the United States of meddling in the conflict and last week expelled the US ambassador.

Yesterday, a day after more than 1,000 government supporters marched on the US Embassy, the United States announced it has suspended the Peace Corps program in Bolivia and advised other Americans to leave Bolivia if they can.

The Peace Corps pulled out all of its 113 volunteers over the weekend and sent them to neighboring Peru.

"Our first priority is the safety and security of our volunteers," Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter said.

More than 2,500 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Bolivia.

The current volunteers - who worked in agriculture, business development, environment, health, and youth development - will be given a choice between continuing their service in another country or returning home, Tschetter said.

American Airlines over the weekend temporarily suspended the only nonstop daily flights between Bolivia and the United States.

President Bush, meanwhile, increasing the diplomatic pressure on Bolivia, determined yesterday that Bolivia is no longer cooperating in the war against drugs and placed the Latin American country on a counternarcotics blacklist.

However, he spared Bolivia from cuts in US assistance that can accompany the finding.

"I hereby designate Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements," Bush said in a statement released by the White House.

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