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Bolivia crisis sparks concern

September 14, 2008|From the Associated Press

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — President Evo Morales on Saturday accused an opposition governor of using foreign thugs against government supporters in violence that has claimed at least 18 lives and prompted him to declare martial law in one province.

In a bid to defuse the bitter dispute over a new constitution and land reform that threatens to tear apart the poor Andean nation, Chile called for an emergency meeting Monday of South American leaders.

"A larger tragedy has to be avoided," said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a strong ally of Bolivia's leftist president, confirming that he would attend the meeting.

Morales described as an ambush a gun battle Thursday in the eastern province of Pando that led him to impose martial law the next day.

"These people were massacred," he said at a news conference on Saturday.

Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said 16 people were killed in the clash, the majority of them peasants who back Morales. Authorities said two more people died Friday at Pando's main airfield as government troops took control, opening fire to disperse protesters.

Bolivia's first indigenous president, Morales said he would not hesitate to extend the state of siege if necessary to the other three pro-autonomy provinces in eastern Bolivia where separatists seized government offices and natural gas fields last week in the gravest crisis of his nearly 3-year-old presidency.

Government opponents are demanding that Morales cancel a Dec. 7 referendum on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, seek a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants.

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