Saturday, September 13, 2008

Street fights, gas disruptions assail Bolivia - International Herald Tribune

LA PAZ, Bolivia: Anti-government protesters fought backers of President Evo Morales with clubs, machetes and guns and seized natural gas fields, as Bolivia and the U.S. traded diplomatic salvos over the crisis.

At least eight people were killed Thursday and 20 injured in street fights, authorities reported.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials angered by Morales' decision to expel Washington's ambassador for allegedly inciting opposition protesters responded by kicking out Bolivia's top diplomat. Bolivian officials, however, have told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice they wanted to maintain ties.

In a show of solidarity with his ally Morales, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave the U.S. ambassador to his country 72 hours to leave and announced the recall of Venezuela's ambassador to Washington.

A two-week protest against Morales' plans to redo the constitution and redirect gas revenues turned violent this week as demonstrators in the country's energy-rich eastern provinces stormed public offices, blocked roads and seized gas fields.

Protests have disrupted natural gas exports to Brazil — Bolivia's No. 1 customer — and apparently Argentina, as opposition groups in the provinces — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija — fight Morales' leftist government for control of Bolivia's lucrative gas revenues.

Government opponents also are demanding Morales cancel a Dec. 7 nationwide vote on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants from Bolivia's poor indigenous majority.

"We're going to tolerate only so much. Patience has its limits," Morales told supporters on Thursday. The Aymara Indian and former coca growers' union leader has so far hesitated to mobilize the military, fearing major bloodshed.

The eight deaths occurred in Pando outside the capital, Cobija, in a rumble between pro- and anti-government bands in a jungle region, a deputy minister for social movements, told the AP.

Argentina announced its support of the Morales administration.

"It's a government elected by popular will and you have to respect that," Argentine Justice Minister Anibal Fernandez said Friday.

The European Union has appealed to Bolivian authorities to move quickly to defuse political tensions, offering to mediate between opposing parties.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implored Bolivians to end the violence and seek consensus, and also offered to assist in talks.

"He urges all concerned to act with restraint and to prevent any further confrontation," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Friday in New York.

Half of Bolivia's natural gas exports to Brazil were halted for nearly seven hours on Thursday because of sabotage by anti-Morales activists, according to the affected Transierra pipeline company.

And Bolivia's finance minister said gas deliveries to Brazil would be curtailed by 10 percent for up to two weeks as workers fix a pipeline ruptured by protesters. Bolivia supplies Brazil with 50 percent of its natural gas.

Brazilian state energy company Petrobras said it has adopted a contingency plan to decrease natural gas use in its units and replace gas with other fuels.

As protesters also stormed the Pocitos gas installation that supplies neighboring Argentina, plant technicians shut off gas as a precaution, an engineer there said. But the Argentine pipeline company that receives the Bolivian gas said its flow was unaffected.

The protests forced the closure of some regional airports, and American Airlines canceled all flights to Bolivia through Saturday. Company spokeswoman Martha Pantin said it expected flights to resume beginning Sunday.

Morales accused U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg of conspiring with Bolivia's conservative opposition as he ordered the envoy to leave. Goldberg met last week with Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, one of Morales' most virulent opponents.

Washington then declared Bolivian Ambassador Gustavo Guzman "persona non grata." Diplomats declared "persona non grata" are generally given 72 hours to depart.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told reporters Thursday that he wrote to Rice to say that Bolivia "wishes to maintain bilateral relations."

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez threatened military intervention if Morales were to be overthrown. "It would give us a green light to begin whatever operations are necessary to restore the people's power," he said.

Chavez expelled U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy, accusing the U.S. of "trying to do here what they were doing in Bolivia." The Venezuelan leader on Thursday accused a group of current and former military officers of trying to assassinate him and topple the government with support from the Washington, detaining several suspects for interrogation. He did not offer evidence.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied Chavez's accusations that Washington has backed plots against him.


Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil; Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia; Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela; and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.