November 25, 2019 / 6:14 PM / 12 days ago

Bolivia edges toward peace as torn country mourns its dead

SACABA, Bolivia/LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivians have taken down roadblocks and struck peace deals after a month of protests and deadly clashes that have convulsed the nation after a disputed election in October and the resignation of long-term leader Evo Morales.

Andronico Rodriguez, a leader of coca growers, shakes hands with supporters in Sacaba outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, November 25, 2019.REUTERS/Danilo Balderrama

But fast-moving probes into Morales’ former supporters have threatened to reignite hostilities and derail deals with protest and union leaders aimed at bringing peace to the country.

On Monday, anti-government protesters in Sacaba, a city in the mountainous region of Cochabamba that has been hit hard by violence, held a moment of silence for nine people killed in clashes with security forces this month.

“May there be peace in Bolivia and no more massacres,” said Gregoria Siles, an indigenous mother of five whose 26-year-old son was killed in the clashes, weeping as she showed a framed picture of him to journalists and others. “He was my only son.”

At least 33 people have been killed since the Oct. 20 vote, 30 since the interim president, Jeanine Áñez, took office nearly two weeks ago.

The deaths have raised pressure on Añez’s interim government, with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission visiting the country to investigate potential human rights violations.

Morales backers blame Añez for the violence and say her government is persecuting his supporters. Áñez and the military accuse Morales, now in Mexico, and his allies of stoking unrest in a bid to destabilize her government.

But in most of Bolivia, signs pointed to the worst of the violence winding down as sparring politicians and protest leaders shifted their focus to new elections.

On Sunday, Áñez signed into law requiring new elections, a move that has the backing of Morales’ leftist party.

“We are returning to normal after something so hard and so dramatic, but I think we are moving forward,” Áñez said.

GRADUAL TRUCE IN COCHABAMBA

In deals struck with union and protest leaders, Áñez’ government committed to withdrawing troops from most protest areas, releasing scores of arrested demonstrators and repealing a law that gave the military broad discretion in the use of force.

But the government rejected demands for tough-talking Interior Minister Arturo Murillo to resign, or to provide guarantees that protest leaders would not face prosecution.

On Monday, Murillo said an arrest warrant had been issued for one of Morales’ key advisers over allegations of terrorism and sedition stemming from comments that Bolivia would turn into a “modern Vietnam” under Áñez.

Another ally of Morales was arrested at a news conference, accused of instigating deadly violence.

Bolivia, which Morales led since 2006, spiraled into chaos after the October election was mired in controversy amid evidence it had been rigged in the leftist leader’s favor. Morales was forced to resign amid widespread protests and after police and the military withdrew their backing.

Morales’ Nov. 10 resignation, however, sparked a violent and volatile period as his supporters blockaded strategic routes to stop the flow of fuel and food to major cities, and the military was mobilized against them.

In Sacaba, Andrónico Rodríguez, a key coca farmer union boss whom many had expected to be the presidential candidate for Morales’ party in 2024 elections, told Reuters that protesters would now work to “pacify the country and prepare for the next election.”

He warned, however, that the interim government needed to back down from its “radical” stance.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“We’re entering a truce gradually,” he said. “If they don’t fulfill their promises we’ll start blockades with even more strength.”

(GRAPHIC: Bolivia death toll - here)

Reporting by Mitra Taj in Sacaba and Danny Ramos in La Paz; Writing by Adam Jourdan and Mitra Taj; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Gerry Doyle

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