At least 100,000 people in this opposition stronghold city celebrated on Saturday a declaration of greater independence from the leftist government of Bolivian President Evo Morales and its attempts to redistribute wealth to Bolivia's poor, indigenous majority.
Simultaneously, throngs of Morales' backers filled the main plaza in La Paz, the nation's capital, to celebrate a draft constitution approved this month that would help the president spread more of Bolivia's natural resources and wealth to the poor concentrated in the country's arid western highlands. The new charter goes to voters for approval next year.
Pro-autonomy rallies were held in the states of Beni, Pando and Tarija, Bolivian media reported, with no crowd estimates available.
But the largest rally was in the eastern lowlands state of Santa Cruz, where a carnival atmosphere took hold among autonomy movement leaders wearing long garlands of flowers and singing, flag-waving families dressed in green T-shirts and headbands that read, "Now I'm autonomous."
"This is a `yes' to Bolivia and a `no' to tyrants," shouted Santa Cruz State Governor Ruben Costas, an outspoken supporter of greater autonomy for his state.
In the capital, tens of thousands of government supporters marched and Morales danced in the streets with revelers wearing ponchos and traditional layered pollera skirts.
But Morales warned that he was certain no member of the armed forces would back separatists.
Opponents were seeking "a division, a coup d'etat," the president told supporters. "We won't permit Bolivia to be divided."
The dueling rallies, though mostly festive, reflect rising tension over the leftist project that Morales, the country's first indigenous president, has charted in South America's poorest nation since his December 2005 election.
Claiming the new constitution will erode their authority and finances, leaders of Bolivia's four eastern states -- with Santa Cruz in the lead -- moved this week to declare autonomy.
The states represent some 35 percent of Bolivia's population of more than 9.5 million and are pushing for a federalist system in which they would share fewer revenues with the central government.
A Santa Cruz "autonomy statute," which voters in the state would have to approve in coming months, would create a separate police force and insist on state control of lands.
It clashes with the new draft constitution, approved by a special national assembly that was boycotted by the main opposition party. An article of the constitution that would allow the dismantling of major agricultural estates will be voted on in a separate public referendum.
Bolivia's largest such estates are in the agribusiness-heavy region of Santa Cruz, which is also home to the country's main oil and natural gas exporters.
The standoff between the more prosperous east and traditionally poor highland west could be mediated by EU diplomats in coming days, presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia has called the Santa Cruz autonomy statute "illegal and separatist," while its proponents insisted that it honors the central government's powers over the military and foreign policy, among other things.
Festivities in Santa Cruz were largely peaceful, but a small bomb exploded at midday on the sixth floor of the city's main courthouse, police said.
No injuries were reported.
Outside of town, in the rural community of Santa Rosa, club-wielding pro-Morales protesters clashed with celebrating autonomy backers. Police said about 20 people were hurt.
Costas also warned Morales' government that "you don't dare invade or militarize us."
Opposition leaders claimed last week that Morales was sending troops to the region.
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