November 24, 2019 / 4:06 PM / 20 days ago

Bolivian leader agrees to withdraw military in deal to 'pacify' country

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Interim Bolivian President Jeanine Anez agreed to withdraw the military from protest areas and repeal a law giving them broad discretion in the use of force as part of a preliminary “pacification” deal struck early on Sunday with protest leaders.

Bolivia's interim President Jeanine Anez speaks after enacting the law for general election at the national congress in La Paz, Bolivia, November 24, 2019. REUTERS/David Mercado

In exchange for the concessions, more than a dozen leaders of indigenous groups, farmers and unions who took part in the talks agreed to order their followers to end their demonstrations.

The 12-point pact follows the unanimous passage of legislation by Bolivia’s Congress on Saturday to annul contested elections and pave the way for a new vote without former President Evo Morales, a major breakthrough in the political crisis. Anez signed the bill into law on Sunday.

At least 30 people have died in clashes between protesters and security forces since the Oct. 20 election, which was dogged by allegations of vote-rigging. Most have died since Morales stepped down on Nov. 10.

Social leaders blame the military for the deaths. Anez’s government denies the charge.

“If there’s no need for the army to be in the streets, it won’t be,” Anez said in comments broadcast on state TV at the end of the talks at the presidential palace.

“It’s due to extreme necessity that the army was deployed,” she said. “It wasn’t to abuse anyone or to show power.”

As part of the agreement, military officers will remain on guard at strategic state companies to prevent vandalism. The deal also commits the government to protect social leaders and lawmakers from persecution, provide compensation for family members of people killed in clashes and free those arrested in protests.

Anti-government protesters lifted road blockades - including one at a natural gas plant where nine people were killed in clashes this week - ahead of the weekend’s talks.

Talks resume on Sunday at 5 p.m. to finalize a bill that Anez said she would send to Congress for passage later in the day. Sunday’s talks will include for the first time Andronico Rodriguez, an influential leader of coca growers who called for protests after Anez took the presidency citing the constitutional line of succession.

“From that moment on there will be pacification, social peace, across the national territory,” said Juan Carlos Huarachi, the head of Bolivia’s largest federation of labor unions, who acted as a mediator in talks. “We’ve advanced 99%.”

Huarachi’s federation of unions once backed Morales but along with the military was key in pushing him to step down after an audit of the election found serious irregularities.

Reporting By Daniel Ramos, Writing By Mitra Taj; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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