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Bolivia Cracks Down on Protesters

Martial law is imposed on El Alto after five people are killed in demonstrations against a gas exporting plan.

October 13, 2003|From Times Wire Services

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia's government imposed martial law on a city outside this capital Sunday after at least five people were killed in clashes between troops and demonstrators angry about proposals to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico.

Soldiers manned major intersections in El Alto, a poor, industrial city about eight miles west of La Paz. But the move didn't stop protesters who repeatedly clashed with the soldiers and police trying to disperse them.

The government said four civilians and one soldier were killed and about 30 others were injured. Witnesses told local radio eight protesters were killed.

The deaths brought to at least 16 the number killed in El Alto since the clashes began. The government earlier reported 11 deaths, including a 7-year-old boy killed Saturday by a stray bullet.

Fuel and food were running short in La Paz, the administrative capital, as thousands of poor Bolivian farmers and workers calling for President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to quit stopped convoys of trucks entering the Andean city with roadblocks.

Police had no immediate comment on the clashes.

"A military operation is underway to regain control of El Alto," presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana said at a news conference before dawn.

Antezana accused protesters of trying to overthrow the government, an allegation the administration has made before.

The demonstrators are angry about a plan proposed by Sanchez de Lozada to export natural gas from Bolivia's mammoth reserves in the south to the United States and Mexico.

Government officials estimate that the gas exports would generate about $1.5 billion for Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest nations. But union leaders and Bolivia's poor Indian majority argue that the economic benefits won't reach them.

Protesters also don't want the exports to go through Chile because of an old border dispute.

The demonstrations are the latest to plague Sanchez de Lozada, who has faced a series of violent protests by workers and indigenous leaders opposed to his free-market policies. He grew up in the U.S. and has staked much of his political fortunes on his relationship with the Bush administration.

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