Tue, May 06, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Bolivians fear violence as province chooses autonomy

AFP , SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA

Thousands celebrated in the streets early yesterday after Bolivia’s Santa Cruz voted for autonomy, but Bolivian President Evo Morales warned that the vote was “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Crowds filled the main square in Santa Cruz city to dance and triumphantly wave the opposition-run province’s green and white flag, while Morales went on television to sternly tell the province’s governor and citizens that he would ignore the result.

There were fears violence might erupt after the poll, which was punctuated by clashes between pro and anti-autonomy militants that left at least 20 injured.

Bolivia’s military chiefs have already said they view the autonomy move as a threat to national territorial integrity.

The crisis is set to deepen next month when three other opposition-run provinces in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands hold their own autonomy referendums. Two more of Bolivia’s nine provinces are also thinking of following.

An official partial count of 22 percent of the ballots showed that Santa Cruz voters approved autonomy by 82 percent.

Santa Cruz provincial electoral commission officials said 18 percent of the ballots were against the proposal.

They did not immediately give turnout figures. The government had urged its supporters to boycott the vote.

Television exit polls for all the province had put approval of the autonomy measures at 85 percent.

The referendum has caused concern as the region sits atop natural gas fields that are vital to the economy of Bolivia, South America’s poorest nation. It also has the country’s biggest farming properties, concentrated in the hands of just a few families, several of which helped organize the referendum.

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