Bolivia tells U.S. ambassador to leave, protests mount

LA PAZ Wed Sep 10, 2008 11:25pm EDT

A Bolivian a protester carries riot control weapons that were taken from the police during a strike in Santa Cruz September 9, 2008. Hundreds of autonomy activists clashed with riot military forces during a protest against President Evo Morales' policies. REUTERS/Carlos Hugo Vaca

A Bolivian a protester carries riot control weapons that were taken from the police during a strike in Santa Cruz September 9, 2008. Hundreds of autonomy activists clashed with riot military forces during a protest against President Evo Morales' policies.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Hugo Vaca

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LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, ordered the U.S. ambassador on Wednesday to leave the country, blaming him for intensified opposition protests that shut down a natural gas pipeline to Brazil.

A State Department spokesman in Washington said Morales' accusations were "baseless" and that the U.S. Embassy in La Paz had not received any request for Ambassador Philip Goldberg to quit the South American nation.

Morales, who is a close ally of Venezuela's fiery leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, frequently lashes out at Washington and previously accused Goldberg of siding with his rightist opponents in a power struggle gripping Bolivia.

"The ambassador of the United States is conspiring against democracy and wants Bolivia to break apart," Morales, a former coca farmer, said in a speech at the presidential palace in the Andean city of La Paz.

Morales said he had asked his foreign minister to send a letter to the embassy telling Goldberg to "urgently return to his country" -- a decision applauded by Chavez, who accuses Washington of backing a failed 2002 coup against him.

"The same thing is happening in Bolivia, it's the imperial aggressor, the genocidal U.S. empire," Chavez said in a speech.

Morales' opponents concentrated in resource-rich eastern regions have stepped up protests against his leftist reforms in recent days, storming public buildings and attacking facilities linked to the impoverished nation's key natural gas industry.

Protesters occupied public buildings for a second day on Wednesday in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold and Bolivia's economic hub.

They want a bigger share of state energy revenues to stay in their region, Bolivia's richest, as well as greater autonomy from the central government in La Paz.

PIPELINE

In the south of the country, near the Argentine border, protesters damaged a pipeline, forcing the state energy firm YPFB to close it and cut exports to neighboring Brazil by about 10 percent, officials said.

"(Natural gas) exports to Brazil have been reduced by 3 million cubic meters," YPFB President Santos Ramirez told reporters, describing the attack as a "terrorist act."

Brazil's Energy Ministry said however that Bolivian gas shipments were steady at 31 million cubic meters a day.

The Foreign Ministry in Brasilia said in a statement it was "taking all the necessary steps to guarantee the gas supply," and called for calm in Bolivia.

Protesters also stormed the Vuelta Grande gas field in central Chuquisaca province, forcing gas producer Chaco, a YPFB unit, to halt production late on Tuesday.

"Some 100 people occupied the field and we had to stop operations for security reasons," said Juan Callau, Chaco's head of institutional relations. The plant will not be able to restart production until the protesters withdraw, he said.

Vuelta Grande produces about 2.5 million cubic meters of the fuel a day for domestic and export markets, but the company could not immediately say how exports have been affected.

Morales, who nationalized the energy industry two years ago, had sent troops to protect energy facilities after opposition protesters threatened to target gas fields and pipelines.

The latest wave of unrest began after Morales, the country's first indigenous president, announced plans for a referendum on a draft constitution that his rivals say will give him too much power.

Branko Marinkovic, a wealthy landowner and opposition leader from Santa Cruz, said the protests would continue "until President Morales gives up his plans to impose a racist constitution (and) gives us back our energy resources."

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz, Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas, Denise Luna in Rio de Janeiro and Washington bureau; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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