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Bolivia revolt chokes capital, one dead
( 2003-10-15 09:03) (Agencies)

A popular revolt against Bolivia's president sparked more deadly street clashes on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 53 in weeks of protests that are choking off food and fuel in the paralyzed capital.

At least one worker was killed in the suburb of El Alto, a local human rights group said, as thousands of demonstrators protested Sanchez de Lozada's free market economics and failure to tackle endemic poverty in South America's poorest country.

The protests of the past month were sparked by plans to export natural gas to the United States, with many Bolivians fearing the benefits would not reach the broad population.

But opposition to the gas plan exploded to include a myriad of other gripes in an economy that has been stagnant for the past 20 years and where 60 percent of the population scrape by on $2 a day or less.

Deeply disliked President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada has rejected widespread demands to step down, but a key member of his crumbling coalition suggested on Tuesday it might be the only way to keep the death toll from going higher.

"If the solution to preserving democracy comes with his resignation, then we can't rule that out," Manfred Reyes Villa, a populist who heads the New Republican Force, told reporters after meeting the president.

Dozens of tanks ringed the presidential palace, where his office is, early Tuesday. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, marchers chanted death threats against Sanchez de Lozada. Witnesses said a group of protesters tried to break into his private home but were dispersed by police tear gas.


The mountain capital of La Paz has suffered from weeks of looting, fuel shortages and gun battles between protesters and police. Movement was nearly impossible on Tuesday as dissidents dug up roads with picks and scattered the paving stones to block major intersections.

Three babies have died in a La Paz hospital due to a shortage of oxygen, doctors said on Tuesday. Teachers and transportation workers are on strike, while the international airport remains closed.

At least 14 people were killed on Monday, according to Bolivia's Permanent Human Rights Assembly, which compiles casualty figures from hospitals.

The unrest has been spearheaded by Bolivia's indigenous majority, who say they have been further impoverished by the government's highly successful, U.S.-sponsored program to eradicate coca, the raw material used to make cocaine.

Resentment runs deep in this landlocked Andean nation, where up to 8 million Indians and slaves died working in silver mines during hundreds of years of colonial Spanish rule.

"It is the government that has left the country in convulsions with this massacre -- Sanchez de Lozada and his cabinet, better known as the butchers of Bolivians," Evo Morales, Bolivia's most powerful Indian leader, told Reuters in an interview. He repeated calls for the president to quit.

Sanchez de Lozada was elected by Congress in 2002 after failing to win a majority of the popular vote.

He abandoned the gas export project on Monday, but protest leaders said the gesture came too late to save his government which just eight months ago had to fend off rioting that left 32 dead.

The army, the traditional power broker in coup-prone Bolivia, issued a statement late on Monday expressing its support. And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter meanwhile expressed hope for a peaceful solution to the unrest.

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