- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

LA PAZ, Bolivia | President Evo Morales struggled to assert control over a badly fractured Bolivia on Sunday as separatist protesters set fire to a town hall and blockaded highways in opposition-controlled provinces, impeding gasoline and food distribution.

At least 30 people have been killed in the poor Andean nation this week, Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said. All the deaths occurred in Pando province, where Mr. Morales declared martial law on Friday, dispatching troops and accusing government foes of killing his supporters.

Troops continued to arrive in Pando and were patrolling the streets of Cobija, the capital.

“There are people who want to continue sowing pain across the region,” presidential spokesman Ivan Canelas told reporters on Sunday.

He said without providing details that highway blockades continued and that “an armed group” had set fire to the town hall in Filadelfia, a municipality near Cobija.

The La Paz newspaper La Razon quoted the country’s highways chief as saying the blockades had halted transit on major roadways in the opposition-governed eastern provinces of Tarija, Beni and Santa Cruz. The AP could not immediately confirm the report.

The gravest challenge to Mr. Morales in his nearly 3-year-old tenure as Bolivia’s first indigenous president stems from his struggle with the four eastern lowland provinces where Bolivia’s natural-gas riches are concentrated and where his government has essentially lost control.

The provinces are seeking greater autonomy from Mr. Morales’ leftist government and are insisting that he cancel a Dec. 7 referendum on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants. Mr. Morales says the new charter is needed to empower Bolivia’s Indian majority.

The leaders of those provinces have designated the governor of gas-rich Tarija, Mario Cossio, as their representative, and he was expected to arrive in La Paz on Sunday to resume talks on easing the crisis.

South America’s leaders were also trying to prevent Bolivia from splintering apart. They were to gather in Chile on Monday for an emergency meeting called by President Michelle Bachelet. It was not clear whether Mr. Morales would attend, and President Alan Garcia of Peru was not expected.

Mr. Morales’ representative in Pando, Nancy Texeira, said the death toll from Thursday’s fighting between pro- and anti-Morales forces near the town of Porvenir was expected to rise as authorities continued to find more dead and wounded.

“We think there are more in the hills, people submerged in the river,” she said.

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