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Death toll rises in Bolivian violence

At least 28 have been killed. The opposition and government accuse each other of arming paramilitaries.

September 15, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA — The death toll in last week's violence in a remote northern province rose to more than two dozen, Bolivia's government said Sunday, as it held frantic talks with opponents to avert further bloodshed.

Sporadic clashes were reported Sunday on roads outside this eastern city, center of opposition to President Evo Morales. Many Bolivians expressed fears that a tense situation could spin out of control if a deal was not reached.

Each side has accused the other of arming illegal paramilitary groups.

"Better that we take action now, before we have 100 or 1,000 dead," said Gov. Mario Cossio of Tarija province, designated negotiator for the states opposed to Morales.

There was no immediate word on the outcome of the talks in La Paz, the capital.

Rifts have been widening for two years, with intermittent outbursts of violence, but so far Bolivia has avoided falling into full-fledged civil conflict. However, many analysts call the current crisis the nation's most perilous point in decades.

"Political, civic and union leaders must know that whatever happens from now on -- whether this country becomes a peaceful and harmonious society or a battleground -- will be because of their work," the daily La Razon editorialized Sunday.

The government and the opposition called Sunday for an independent investigation into Thursday's killings in Pando, a sparsely populated province along the Amazonian frontiers with Brazil and Peru.

In La Paz, Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said 10 more bodies had been found. That would bring the death toll to at least 26 in Thursday's confrontation. Two more deaths were reported Friday in Pando, when the army retook control of the airport in Cobija, the provincial capital. The army is now patrolling the province, which is under martial law.

Rada labeled Thursday's killings near the town of Porvenir a genocide organized by Pando Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez, an opponent of Morales.

The government has accused the governor and his allies of importing sicarios, or hired killers, from Peru and Brazil to shoot down defenseless peasants allied with the president. Fernandez has denied provoking the violence and blamed the central government for the clash.

On Saturday, Morales called the killings a massacre and told a crowd in the central city of Cochabamba that a "fascist, racist coup" was being mounted.

The conservative leaders of five of Bolivia's nine provinces are aligned against Morales and his socialist program of nationalizations, land reform and stiff resistance to what he calls U.S. imperialism.

Critics call Morales a communist tyrant who seeks dictatorial powers. Morales, who won 67% of the vote in a recall election last month, says his policies have benefited the needy masses in South America's poorest nation.

Foes of Morales are seeking greater autonomy for their provinces and a bigger share of revenue from gas and oil fields, which are concentrated in the dissident regions. Morales says his rivals want to take away funds that aid the poor and put the cash into plans to break away from Bolivia. The opposition denies separatist or violent motivations.

"We want peace, but with dignity," said Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz province and a central opposition figure.

The president has frequently accused Washington of collaborating with his enemies and last week expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg for allegedly fomenting rebellion. In his farewell address Sunday, Greenberg called Morales' charges against him "false and unjustified," and said his expulsion would have "serious effects in many forms."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Morales ally, tossed out the U.S. envoy in Caracas, saying he acted in solidarity with the Bolivian president. Washington responded by expelling both the Venezuelan and Bolivian ambassadors.

The Bolivian armed forces chief, Gen. Luis Trigo, has rejected Chavez's offer to send in help should Morales be ousted.

The deteriorating scenario has alarmed Latin American leaders, who have expressed support for Morales. Several nations, including neighboring Brazil and Argentina, have offered to help mediate, but Morales has not agreed.

Today, South American leaders are to gather in Chile for an emergency session aimed at preventing Bolivia's slide into civil war. Morales reportedly planned to travel to Santiago. The Bolivian opposition has also asked to attend.

The crisis has strong ethnic and regional roots.

Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, enjoys massive support among indigenous peasants from the western highlands, where La Paz is situated. Morales has charged that white and mixed-race "oligarchs" in Bolivia's lowland provinces are out to get him.

"Their plan is to topple the Indian," Morales told the crowd in Cochabamba this weekend. "They may topple the Indian, but they won't topple the Bolivian people."

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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