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Bolivia government and rivals say talks pact imminent

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s government and rightist rivals said on Monday they had nearly agreed on a framework for dialogue to try to defuse a political crisis and hoped to clinch a pact at new talks later in the day.

Residents wave white flags during a march for peace in the northern city of Cobija, capital of Pando province which is still under martial law as declared by the government of President Evo Morales, September 14, 2008. REUTERS/stringer

President Evo Morales met for talks into the early hours with Mario Cossio, governor of gas-rich Tarija province and representative of a clutch of pro-autonomy right-wing governors bitterly opposed to his socialist reforms.

They agreed to resume talks later on Monday, once Morales returns from a visit to a summit South American presidents are holding in Chile to try to broker a resolution to the crisis, which flared into deadly clashes that killed as many as 30 people.

An unstable country with massive natural gas reserves at the heart of South America, Bolivia has been rocked in the past week as supporters of opposition governors stepped up rejection of Morales’ plans for pro-indigenous constitutional reforms.

Morales, among a new generation of leftist leaders in Latin America and allied closely with Venezuela’s anti-Washington leader, Hugo Chavez, has accused his opponents of striving to topple him.

“It is better to take a bit more time to make sure we get it right rather than end badly or not at all,” Cossio told reporters after a second session of overnight talks at the presidential palace.

“So we have agreed to give ourselves another break and see each other again tomorrow night once the president returns from Chile,” he added. “We are advancing well. I hope we can have everything finished by tomorrow.”

Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are among leaders due to attend the summit in Santiago.

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Fabian Yaksic, vice minister for decentralization, said he government also hoped to reach an agreement for a formal dialogue framework later on Monday.

The talks came after the government imposed martial law on Friday in a restive northern province where more than a dozen people were killed in clashes pitting Morales’ backers against those of right-wing governors.

A main opposition protest leader said on Sunday his followers would end roadblocks that have crippled eastern Santa Cruz province to help foster negotiation.

At the top of the agenda for talks is the new constitution that Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, is trying to push through to formalize rights for the country’s Indian majority and institute land redistribution reforms.

Bolivia’s political polarization deepened after a recall vote in August that Morales won in a landslide but that also strongly endorsed governors, who want more autonomy to run their provinces.

Troops are seeking to gain control over Cobija, capital of sparsely populated Pando province in the Amazon near Brazil, two days after Morales declared martial law in the area.

Health Minister Ramiro Tapia said from Cobija on Sunday he had a list of 14 confirmed dead, killed in what the government says was an ambush by opposition groups against pro-Morales peasant farmers. He also said 50 people were still missing.

Two others were killed in a separate clash.

One government official has put the death toll from days of clashes at about 30.

Morales accused backers of Pando’s opposition governor, Leopoldo Fernandez, of ordering a massacre and the government has vowed to arrest him. The government says it will seek a 30-year prison term.

Fernandez denies the charge.

The violence last week forced a temporary cut in exports of natural gas to Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia’s main revenue source.

Additional reporting by Marco Aquino in Cobija, Carlos Quiroga in La Paz and Raymond Colitt in Santa Cruz; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Peter Cooney