- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Thousands took to the streets in the capital, chanting antigovernment slogans despite an announcement yesterday by Bolivias president that he will shelve controversial plans for natural gas exports.

The plans to sell gas to the United States and Mexico had already provoked massive protests in recent days in which at least 16 persons were killed.

Radio and TV stations reported six more persons were killed in clashes yesterday in La Paz. The government, however, did not report any new casualties.

Meanwhile, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozadas decision to abandon the gas-export project was followed by criticism from his own vice president, demands that he resign, large demonstrations and a public transportation strike that paralyzed La Paz yesterday. Shops and banks also closed as residents opted to stay home to avoid the violence.

“I cannot continue to support the situation we are living,” Vice President Carlos Mesa said, urging the president to change his policies. Mr. Mesa, however, said he would not resign over the disagreement.

Development Minister Jorge Torres did step down, citing “insurmountable differences” with the president.

The U.S. government supported the president with a strong statement urging calm in Bolivia.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States and other nations “will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means.”

The embattled president addressed the nation on radio and television after meeting with top advisers and military leaders, amid indications his 3-year-old government was weakening.

Mr. Sanchez de Lozada vowed “to defeat the sedition and restore order.” He called the massive protests, “a plot encouraged from abroad aimed at destroying Bolivia and staining our democracy with blood.” He did not elaborate.

As the president spoke, marches and sporadic clashes continued in La Paz.

The marches began peacefully, but clashes broke out when soldiers turned away demonstrators from the plaza, where the presidential palace is located.

Clashes were also reported elsewhere in the city. Witnesses told radio and TV stations that at least six persons died yesterday in La Paz.

“They are mourning a man in the soccer field,” a weeping woman in La Pazs Ovejuyo working-class district told Radio Fides.

In the nearby Rio Seco neighborhood, protesters set fire to a gas tank, killing a female bystander, witnesses said.

The government, however, did not confirm any deaths yesterday.

During weekend protests in El Alto, a city of 750,000 people next to La Paz, soldiers killed at least five demonstrators, according to witnesses. The government declared martial law, sending soldiers with automatic weapons to patrol the streets.

Residents and human rights groups said the number of victims was probably close to 20.

The government had estimated that revenue from the gas exports would bring about $1.5 billion a year to Bolivia.

But union leaders and the nations poor Indian majority argued that the economic benefits would not reach them.

In Washington, Secretary General Cesar Gaviria of the Organization of American States condemned the violence and warned that “any government that arises antidemocratically is absolutely unacceptable in the Americas.”

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