Bolivia's Morales defiant after unrest

Other News Materials 14 September 2008 08:56 (UTC +04:00)

Bolivian President Evo Morales defied rightist opponents on Saturday by vowing to introduce divisive reforms just hours after signs of a compromise had emerged to halt violence that has killed 17 people and prompted martial law.

Addressing a crowd of thousands in the central city of Cochabamba in the poor Andean nation's coca-growing heartland, Morales accused opponents of seeking to topple his government with violence and called them enemies of Bolivia.

"They are conspiring against us with a fascist, racist coup," Morales, Bolivia's first Indian leader, said as he pledged to adopt a new pro-indigenous, pro-poor constitution bitterly opposed by right-wing governors demanding autonomy.

"Their plan is to topple the Indian. They may topple the Indian, but they will never topple the Bolivian people," Morales added. "Just imagine how unpatriotic they are. They are the enemies of all Bolivians."

The government of the South American country declared martial law late on Friday in the remote Amazon region of Pando, scene of the worst violence pitting supporters of Morales against those of the governors.

Officials said at least 15 people -- mostly pro-government peasant farmers -- were killed in clashes on Thursday with backers of the opposition regional governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez, whom the government has vowed to arrest.

A sailor and a civilian were also killed in separate fighting when the army took control of the airport in Pando's capital, Cobija, from protesters, Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana said. Troops would take control of the city, he added.

Violence flared 30 miles (48 km) outside the city of Santa Cruz on Saturday when pro-autonomy protesters and pro-Morales farmers clashed with home-made explosives.

Morales initially offered to review and debate his proposed constitution in an apparent olive branch to his opponents.

But his incendiary speech in Cochabamba was in stark contrast to signals of compromise from the government and the governor of natural gas-rich Tarija province, Mario Cossio, after marathon talks overnight with the country's vice president.

"We have fulfilled the objective of opening talks, and let's hope that in the coming hours this turns into a sustained process of dialogue which results in a pact to resolve problems in the framework of national reconciliation," Cossio, representing other rightist governors who refused to attend, said afterward.

Cossio later briefed three other anti-Morales governors in Santa Cruz, who said they would visit Pando on Sunday in a show of solidarity.

He said he would attend talks with the government scheduled in La Paz for Sunday afternoon, but warned they would collapse if there were any more deaths.

Former coca farmer Morales has angered opponents with plans to change the constitution and break up large ranches to give land to peasants.

Morales officials blamed Fernandez for the deaths in Pando, saying he orchestrated "a massacre" of pro-government farmers.

Fernandez rejected the claim. "They've accused me of using hit men, when everyone knows those socialist peasants, those fake peasants, were armed," he told a local radio station.

Protesters continued to block roads in eastern areas, causing fuel and food shortages in opposition-led Santa Cruz. Officials said the rioters had destroyed or set fire to about 30 public buildings earlier in the week.

The violence forced authorities to cut exports of natural gas to Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia's main source of revenue, though near-normal exports were later resumed, Reuters reported.

Domestic supplies were still facing disruption and Bolivian state tin smelter Empresa Metalurgica Vinto said it had reduced output by 50 percent due to natural gas shortages.

Leaders of neighbouring countries backed Morales, who booted out the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of fomenting unrest.

The Union of South American Nations, which includes most leaders in the region, announced an emergency presidential summit about Bolivia on Monday in Santiago, Chile.

"We have to stop the madness of fascism in Bolivia and prevent a greater tragedy," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in Caracas, accusing Bolivia's military of not doing enough to stop the violence.