Wed, Oct 15, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Protesters demand Bolivian president's resignation

GAS WRANGLE Senior government officials joined calls for the president to step down, despite his assurances that the controversial export plans would be abandoned


A demonstrator jumps over a barricade in La Paz on Monday. Bolivia's embattled president has suspended a controversial project to export natural gas, seeking to defuse a month-long wave of protests.


Violent protests continued after Bolivia's president announced he would cancel controversial plans to export natural gas, leaving another 12 people dead.

Following days of protests and calls for his resignation, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada said Monday he would abandon the plans to export gas from Bolivia's mammoth reserves in the southern region of Tarija to the US and Mexico. He said he would negotiate with opponents until the end of the year. In the meantime, he said, "there will be no gas exports to new markets."

Protest leaders, however, said that's not enough.

"The only political solution to this crisis is the resignation of the president," Congressman Evo Morales said.

"What the Bolivian people want is that the gas remain in Bolivia, for the benefit of Bolivians."

The president rejected demands for his resignation, saying his government "is the result of a popular election" and has the support of the armed forces and the police.

Addressing the nation on radio and television after meeting with top advisers and military leaders, 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.

Thousands took to the streets and chanted anti-government slogans in the capital on Monday. Radio and TV stations reported 12 more people died in clashes Monday in La Paz, raising the number of those killed in days of massive protests over the gas export plans to more than 25. The government, however, did not report any new casualties Monday.

Opponents also organized a public transportation strike that virtually paralyzed La Paz on Monday. Shops and banks also closed as residents opted to stay home to avoid the violence.

Underlining the weakness of Sanchez de Lozada's government, Development Minister Jorge Torres stepped down the same day, citing "insurmountable differences" with the president.

The country's vice president, Carlos Mesa, also demanded publicly that Sanchez de Lozada resign.

"I cannot continue to support the situation we are living," he said. However, Mesa said he will not resign.

The marches in La Paz 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 said demonstrators threw rocks at the residence of former President Jaime Paz Zamora, a close associate to Sanchez de Lozada. The presidential palace, meanwhile, was under heavy military guard and four tanks were parked nearby.

Protesters were reportedly blocking roads in several areas.

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. Residents and human rights groups say the number of victims is probably close to 20.

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