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Bolivian Government Feels the Heat

The coalition splinters and troops ring the presidential palace as protests lead to clashes that have reportedly claimed 18 lives.

October 14, 2003|Hector Tobar and Oscar Ordonez | Special to The Times

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Army troops formed a protective ring around Bolivia's presidential palace Monday as pressure increased on President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to resign in the face of deadly confrontations between protesters and government forces.

Set off in part by a plan to export Bolivian natural gas through Chile, the protests have become a wider movement against Sanchez de Lozada's yearlong administration and Bolivia's unrelenting poverty.

At least 18 people have been killed in and around La Paz since Saturday, including two who died in clashes Monday as the army attempted to regain control of the streets of the capital, according to media reports. Officials here put the three-day death toll at six.

On Monday, Sanchez de Lozada's weak coalition of centrist parties seemed to be coming apart as a result of the political violence, the bloodiest since the return of democracy in 1982 following two decades of military governments.

Vice President Carlos Mesa denounced the government's actions, saying, "I cannot continue to support the situation we are living.

"I have tried to persuade the government to dialogue [with the opposition] but I have not been successful," he said. "The events have unfolded with a cost in human lives my conscience cannot tolerate."

Tens of thousands of impoverished residents of this city and its teeming, mostly Aymara Indian suburb, El Alto, have taken to the streets in recent weeks, blocking highways, fighting with police and demanding Sanchez de Lozada's resignation.

Leaders of the Left Revolutionary Movement, part of the ruling coalition, said Monday that they would withdraw from the government, including Economic Development Minister Jorge Torres Obleas, who resigned.

Officials of another coalition member, the centrist National Republic Force, said they were considering leaving the government and giving up their three seats in the Cabinet.

Sanchez de Lozada said he would not quit but offered an olive branch to the opposition. The plan to export natural gas through Chile would be scrapped, he said.

Union leaders and Bolivia's Indian majority argue that the benefits wouldn't reach them. Protesters also don't want the exports to go through Chile because of an old border dispute.

In a nationally broadcast address, the president said his ouster was being sought by the "lowest sorts of interests."

"Bolivia is in danger," he said. "It is being attacked by a subversive project from abroad aimed at destroying Bolivian democracy. They will not succeed, because our democratic institutions are strong."

Opposition leaders quickly stepped forward to say the president's concession on natural gas exports was not enough.

"This crisis will not be resolved until the president steps down," said Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, the largest opposition party in Congress.

The president held an emergency meeting Monday afternoon with his ministers and the heads of the armed forces, who said they would back his administration. Government officials repeated their claims that opposition forces were preparing a coup.

The government declared martial law in a broad swath of metropolitan La Paz after the weekend violence and sent soldiers with automatic weapons to patrol the streets and "protect citizens and public and private property." There were scattered reports of looting.

Javier Ticona, a resident of the Villa Adela neighborhood who was protesting in central La Paz, said the army presence would not stop the demonstrations.

"We will not allow [the president's] massacres any longer," he said, moments before retreating in the face of police tear gas. "The people are demanding he step down from the throne."


Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Ordonez from La Paz.

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