Bolivia, opposition eye compromise to end violence

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s government and a main opposition leader voiced hope for reconciliation on Saturday after overnight talks to end a wave of political violence that killed at least 17 people and prompted martial law.

Leftist President Evo Morales called the talks to defuse a bitter power struggle with governors who oppose his socialist reforms and want a bigger share of energy revenue.

The government of the poor South American country declared martial law late on Friday in the remote Amazon region of Pando, scene of the worst violence. Morales said on Saturday he saw no reason to expand the martial law decree beyond Pando.

A sailor and a civilian were killed in fighting when the army took control of the airport in Pando’s capital, Cobija, from protesters, Cabinet minister Ramon Quintana said on Saturday.

“Today the armed forces will have to use urban combat tactics to remove these armed groups” of protesters, Quintana said from Cobija.

The governor of natural gas-rich Tarija province, Mario Cossio, held talks at the presidential palace with the country’s vice president into the early hours.

“We have fulfilled the objective of opening talks, and let’s hope that in the coming hours this turns into a sustained process of dialogue which results in a pact to resolve problems in the framework of national reconciliation,” Cossio said.

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Cossio planned to brief three other rightist anti-Morales governors before additional meetings on Sunday, but it was not clear whether they would join the attempts at reconciliation.

“Neither the president nor the armed forces are going to be able to get away with what they want ... We are going to offer our lives fighting,” said Pando Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez.

Officials said at least 15 people -- mostly pro-government peasant farmers -- had been killed in clashes on Thursday with backers of the opposition regional governor.


Morales officials blamed Fernandez for the deaths in Pando, saying he orchestrated “a massacre” of pro-government farmers.

Fernandez rejected the claim. “They’ve accused me of using hitmen, when everyone knows those socialist peasants, those fake peasants, were armed,” he told a local radio station.

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Television showed corpses being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Aid workers planned to visit the site on Saturday, the Red Cross said.

“We were not going to a confrontation,” said a weeping 44-year-old woman community leader, who was not identified on an audio file on the ABI government news Web site.

She said she was traveling with dozens of unarmed men, women and children, to a pro-Morales political meeting when they were ambushed by heavily armed opposition groups.

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Protesters continued to block roads in eastern areas, causing fuel and food shortages in the opposition-led city of Santa Cruz. Officials said the rioters had destroyed or set fire to about 30 public buildings earlier in the week.

The violence forced authorities to cut exports of natural gas to Argentina and Brazil, Bolivia’s main source of revenue, though near-normal exports were later resumed.

However domestic supplies were still facing disruption.

Bolivian state tin smelter Empresa Metalurgica Vinto said on Saturday it had reduced output by 50 percent due to natural gas supply problems after anti-government protesters took over a pumping station.

Leaders of neighboring countries backed Morales.

The Union of South American Nations, which includes most leaders in the region, announced an emergency presidential summit about Bolivia on Monday in Santiago, Chile.

“We have to stop the madness of fascism in Bolivia and prevent a greater tragedy,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in Caracas. “We are working to avoid it and we will avoid it.”

Morales, a former coca farmer and Bolivia’s first Indian president, has angered opponents with plans to overhaul the constitution and break up ranches to give land to peasants.

The crisis also raised tensions with the United States.

Morales, an ally of anti-Washington leader Chavez, ordered the U.S. ambassador out of the country this week, accusing him of conspiring with opposition governors to foment anti-government protests. Washington retaliated by expelling Bolivia’s ambassador.

Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric Beech