Bolivia election audit ready to start after street clashes turn deadly

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia was set to start a politically charged review of its recent presidential election on Thursday, as the country contended with fresh protests and street clashes that left at least two dead and others injured.

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The Organization of American States was expected to conduct the audit of the fiercely contested Oct. 20 vote, which handed President Evo Morales a first-round win.

Morales called for calm as the review was about to get underway and asked the opposition to dismantle the roadblocks it had erected as part of the protest until the audit is done.

The margin of victory for Morales, who swept to power in 2006 as the country’s first indigenous leader, was just above the 10-point lead needed to avoid a runoff against main rival Carlos Mesa. The full vote count, released on Oct. 25, showed Morales had won 47.08% against Mesa’s 36.51%.

Protests over the election have convulsed Bolivia. The government said in a statement that two people, identified as Mario Salvatierra, 55, and Marcelo Terrazas, 41, died late on Wednesday in Montero, a municipality in the department of Santa Cruz, an agricultural and industrial center in eastern Bolivia.

Six men were also injured in the Montero protests. The Morales administration blamed the opposition for the violence.

“You are responsible for all these attacks. You, Mr. Mesa, are responsible,” Government Minister Carlos Romero said on state television on Thursday.

Mesa, 66, who was president of Bolivia from 2003 to 2005, said the two deaths were caused by militant Morales supporters. He urged his own supporters to disband protest marches immediately if they are attacked, and called on Morales, 60, to order his loyalists to end the violence.

The OAS review will be “binding” for all parties, Bolivian Foreign Minister Diego Pary told reporters on Wednesday. The regional diplomatic body said the review should be completed within two weeks.

Furor erupted when the initial vote count was inexplicably disrupted, sparking the anger of opposition supporters, allegations of vote-rigging, and concern from the OAS and foreign governments including the United States and Brazil.

Socialist Morales, a former union leader of Bolivia’s farmers of coca, the raw material for cocaine, has overseen almost 14 years of relative stability and reliable economic growth in one of Latin America’s poorest nations.

Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown