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Up to 20 dead as Bolivian troops quell protests
( 2003-10-13 11:44) (Agencies)

Around 20 protesters were reported killed on Sunday after Bolivia's government sent thousands of troops backed by tanks to quell increasingly violent protests against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

The protesters were killed during pitched battles with troops clearing roadblocks choking food and gasoline supplies to the capital in and around the poor industrial suburb of El Alto, outside La Paz, human rights officials said.

Bolivian soldiers stand guard next to entrance outside La Paz, October 12, 2003.  [Reuters]
The government, which has played down death tolls in recent protests, said four civilians and one soldier were killed and that around 30 others were injured.

Sunday's clashes raise the toll to around 30 dead and dozens injured during a month-long wave of protests against Sanchez de Lozada's free market policies and failure to tackle crushing poverty in South America's poorest nation.

"It is difficult to come up with an exact toll, but according to the reports we have studied, there are 20 dead and 91 injured in or near El Alto," said Waldo Albarracin, president of Bolivia's Permanent Human Rights Assembly.

Fuel and basic foods were running short in the capital as thousands of poor Bolivian farmers and workers calling for Sanchez de Lozada to quit stopped convoys of trucks entering the Andean city with roadblocks.

Presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana said the government could order a curfew in El Alto at any time to stop what it perceived as a coup attempt by its opponents -- a charge it has made on several occasions in the past.

Witnesses said troops stood guard on the main road in El Alto, the center of recent protests against the government.


Bolivia's flagship airline suspended flights out of La Paz due to security fears, but the international airport was still operating under the guard of troops.

Sunday's violence is the worst since February, when a government austerity drive backed by the International Monetary Fund sparked massive riots in which 32 people died.

Two people were killed on Saturday and dozens more were injured as protesters fought pitched battles with police and security forces outside the capital, local media reported.

Protests by the country's poor Indian majority against Sanchez de Lozada have spiraled in the last month amid an economic downturn in this nation of 8 million people, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Indian leader and lawmaker Evo Morales, who nearly won the presidency in 2002, rejected the government's claims of a coup bid.

"They are the subversive ones who are trying to act like coup leaders," he told reporters.

An unpopular project to export natural gas to the United States through Chile -- which has had tense diplomatic relations with Bolivia because of a border dispute -- has also become a lightning rod for protests.

Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S. ally in the anti-drug war who is widely unpopular for failing to alleviate poverty, has played down the protests and defied calls to step down.

Next week, transport workers and coca farmers -- angry at a U.S.-backed drive to eradicate illegal crops of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine -- are expected to join the protests.

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