Street fights, gas disruptions plague Bolivia

September 11, 2008 5:36:20 PM PDT
Anti-government protesters fought backers of President Evo Morales on Thursday in Bolivia's pro-autonomy east with clubs, machetes and guns and seized more natural gas fields. At least eight people were killed 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 Thursday by kicking out Bolivia's top diplomat. Earlier in the day, Bolivian officials 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.

Half of Bolivia's natural gas exports to Brazil - its No. 1 customer - were halted for nearly seven hours on Thursday because of sabotage by anti-Morales activists, according to the affected Transierra pipeline company.

Protesters also stormed the Pocitos gas installation that supplies neighboring Argentina. Plant technicians shut off gas to the country as a precautionary measure, an engineer at Pocitos told The Associated Press.

However, an executive with Transportadora Gas del Norte, the Argentine pipeline company that receives the Bolivian gas, told the AP that the gas flow was unaffected Thursday.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to comment on the matter.

Bolivia's finance minister, meanwhile, said gas deliveries to Brazil would be curtailed by 10 percent for up to two weeks as workers fix a pipeline ruptured by protesters on Wednesday. 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.

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.

Opposition groups in the provinces - Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija - are fighting Morales' leftist government for control of Bolivia's lucrative gas revenues.

They also are demanding he 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, Sacha Llorenti, a deputy minister for social movements, told the AP.

Presidential spokeswoman Nancy Teixera said at least 20 people were injured. Radio reports said the groups fought with clubs, machetes and shotguns. Interior Minister Alfredo Rada confirmed the use of firearms.

About 80 people were hurt in another clash late Wednesday in the natural gas-rich province of Tarija where the gas fields were seized, according to police and media reports.

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

In Washington, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush ordered Bolivia's ambassador to leave after Bolivia expelled the U.S. envoy there.

"In response to unwarranted actions and in accordance with the Vienna Convention (on diplomatic protocol), we have officially informed the government of Bolivia of our decision to declare Ambassador Gustavo Guzman persona non grata," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Diplomats declared "persona non grata" are generally given 72 hours to depart.

Morales had accused U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg of conspiring with Bolivia's conservative opposition. The envoy met last week with Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, one of Morales' most virulent opponents.

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.

Later Thursday, Chavez expelled U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy.

"They're trying to do here what they were doing in Bolivia," Chavez said in a televised speech, hours after accusing a group of current and former military officers of trying to assassinate him and topple the government with support from the Washington. He didn't offer evidence.

"That's enough ... from you, Yankees," he added, using an expletive.

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