- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — An attack by a pro-government mob on a bus carrying an American Peace Corps worker has prompted the U.S. agency to temporarily withdraw from a violent neighborhood near the capital.

“The Peace Corps has pulled out its contingent of about a dozen volunteers from the area. We expect to go back when the situation calms down,” said Payne Huffman, 33, of Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Huffman survived an attack last weekend by rock-throwing supporters of President Evo Morales, who were attempting to block anti-government protesters from reaching the capital, Santa Cruz.

“We lay for almost two hours between the seats as rocks crashed through the windows and pelted the roof above us,” said Mr. Huffman, who was traveling by bus with his girlfriend, Mariela Ruiz, and her 2-year-old daughter when the assault took place in the town of San Julian.

Supporters of Mr. Morales’ Movement toward Socialism party (MAS) were attempting to cut off a road leading to Santa Cruz, to block anti-government protesters from reaching a rally.

“They were trying to set fire to a bus in front of us, and all we could do was duck for cover from the stones raining down. We kept the little girl sandwiched between us and covered her eyes with a rag as tear gas and smoke from burning rubber entered through the broken windows,” said Mr. Huffman.

Bolivian journalists attempting to cover the rally have given chilling accounts of how TV crews and cars carrying press teams were also targeted by the mob, which numbered in the thousands.

“We tried to take refuge in a radio station only to be chased out by men armed with clubs and machetes,” said a cameraman for the Santa Cruz-based Activa TV. He recalled hearing them scream, “there are cambas in there.”

Camba is an ethnic term used to describe the mixed race white and Guarani Indian population of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, who overwhelmingly oppose the Andean Indian dominated central government of Mr. Morales.

The area west of Santa Cruz where the violence took place has been a focal point of intensifying ethnic and racial tensions since the government introduced a series of measures in recent months giving away local land to Andean Indians.

MAS leaders say that the violence started when protesters on board the buses fired on people, who were trying to block the road with dirt and trees.

Spokeswoman Mariela Ruiz said that shots were fired by some people armed with revolvers and that at least one MAS supporter was shot.

The government sent army troops into the area following retaliatory attacks by anti-government militants of the Santa Cruz Union.

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