Tanks roll into Bolivian capital

Tanks and armoured vehicles took up positions in La Paz early on Tuesday after thousands took to the streets demanding the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who postponed under pressure plans to build a controversial pipeline to export natural gas through Chile.

At least 58 people have been killed and 200 injured in nearly four weeks of protests against the gas export plans, according to human rights groups.

The soldiers arrived late on Monday to disperse hundreds of protesters on La Paz’s main avenues. Soldiers also took up positions at the city outskirts, following another day of protests in which at least 13 civilians and a soldier were killed in


Unions oppose construction of a five-billion-dollar pipeline through Chile to the Pacific where gas would be shipped to the United States and Mexico. Critics say Bolivia’s 18% share of the profits is too small.

National resentment towards Chile, which took Bolivia’s outlet to the sea in an 1879 war, also runs deep.

Other groups, such as coca growers whose crops have been torn up, have since joined the campaign against Sanchez de Lozada, who has been in office just over one year.

The Bolivian capital had a ghostly feel, with no pedestrians, cars or city busses as a public transportation strike continued.
A group of 70 tourists, including Americans and Europeans, were put aboard two military airplanes and flown from La Paz—where the airport is closed—to the city of Santa Cruz.

In a bid to defuse the growing conflict, Sanchez de Lozada said Bolivia would not export natural gas to any new markets before December 31, to allow a thorough public debate.

In a televised message a defiant Sanchez de Lozada however rejected calls to resign, describing the widespread rioting as “a grand subversive project organised and financed from outside the country to destroy Bolivia’s democracy.”

“Democracy cannot be replaced by a union dictatorship,” the president said.

“Something that the people have built cannot be destroyed to be replaced with a new authoritarianism, a new dictatorship that is going to pit region against region, class against class, ethnic group against ethnic group,” he added.

Pressure mounted when Vice President Carlos Mesa—who is also speaker of the legislature—withdrew support for the president, though he stopped short of resigning.

“As a citizen or man of principles, I cannot back this government, if its response to mass pressure is death,” Mesa said.

Four of the president’s 15 cabinet ministers then resigned.

Sanchez de Lozada however found solid support in Washington, which warned it would “not tolerate” any undemocratic attempt to topple the government.

“The American people and their government support Bolivia’s democratically elected president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in his efforts to build a more prosperous and just future for all Bolivians,” the US State Department said in a statement.

Many of the demonstrators on Monday came from El Alto, an impoverished city just outside La Paz, and joined thousands who headed for residential areas in the capital and burned down one shopping centre. Demonstrators also clogged the streets of the cities of Cochabamba, Oruro and Potosi.

Sanchez de Lozada (73) charged that opposition lawmaker and ethnic Aymara indigenous leader Felipe Quispe and coca leaf growers’ union leader Evo Morales had plotted to drive him out of office.

Both have denied leading the protests. But Morales promised the protests would continue until the president resigned. Unions want the pipeline put to a referendum.

Late Monday, a major transit union joined the open-ended strike, its leader Angel Villacorta said.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America but has the second-largest deposits of natural gas, after Venezuela. Protesters would rather see the gas exported through Peru, although the engineering costs would be higher. - Sapa-AFP

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