- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Government troops took up posts around government buildings in Bolivia’s eastern capital yesterday as separatist militants invaded tax offices, the latest in a wave of mob actions that have paralyzed key national institutions.

The previous night, protesters ransacked offices of the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) in Santa Cruz as demands for regional autonomy have escalated into calls for outright independence.

“We are no longer interested in the constitutional assembly or any negotiations with the government; what we want is our Camba nation,” said protest leader Amelia Dimetri, using the name favored by a growing body of youthful militants for the prosperous eastern regions of Bolivia.

The spreading violence has jeopardized a summit of Latin American presidents scheduled for another Bolivian city, Cochabamba.

President Evo Morales and his close ally from Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, plan to use the event to propose a regional anti-U.S. alliance that would include the legalization of coca farming.

Students groups have blocked access to some airports where the guests are expected to arrive.

Although 4,000 police and troops were mobilized to protect the conference, at least five heads of state, including those of Colombia, Peru and Mexico, have announced that they are not coming.

The latest unrest began with a general strike led by governors and civic leaders in eastern Bolivia a week ago to protest new laws redistributing large private farms and imposing strict controls on regional authorities.

In the capital, La Paz, Indian supporters of Mr. Morales stormed a church to break up a hunger strike by government opponents, taking local Gov. Luis Paredes hostage when he tried to appeal for calm.

Mobs have also tried to storm the Congress, where opposition senators have called a hunger strike to try to block government legislation that they say is taking Bolivia toward a dictatorship.

Government opponents are particularly incensed by Morales administration attempts to change the rules for the adoption of proposed changes to the constitution, allowing them to be approved with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote.

Mr. Morales further angered the hunger strikers by suggesting they were “dieting” for “aesthetic reasons.” He was chased out of Santa Cruz by rock-throwing students when he arrived to deliver a speech on Monday.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, meanwhile, was prevented from addressing an Organization of American States-sponsored meeting when protesters tried to break into the conference hall. Drive-by shootings have since been reported against homes of protest organizers.

“This is the work of the government,” charged Santa Cruz university student leader Chiqui Martinez, pointing to bullet holes found in his front door and windows after unknown assailants fired at his house Tuesday night.

Mr. Martinez has called on eastern Bolivian separatists to set up a militia to protect against armed groups, which he says are being organized by the government.

Interior Minister Alicia Munoz strongly denies the charges. But she admits to having withdrawn police protection from the Church of San Francisco in the center of La Paz before 200 Aymara Indians blew open its doors with dynamite to dislodge a group of hunger strikers inside.

The hunger strikers, including the popular novelist Claudio Lechin and a former army general, were whisked to safety by priests as the mob armed with clubs and whips stormed into the old monastery.

Mrs. Munoz told TV reporters that the police were “needed to protect the summit in Cochabamba.”

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