Bolivian troops fight back protesters
( 2003-10-16 10:21) (Agencies)
Bolivia's army fought to stop a column of dynamite-wielding Indian miners from streaming into the besieged capital on Wednesday, leaving two dead as a popular uprising against the president spread.
Catholic priest Porfirio Ticona, who saw the bodies, said two miners were killed and nine other protesters injured 50 miles outside La Paz as a convoy of miners threw dynamite at soldiers manning a road block. The government said the miners carried "a huge quantity" of dynamite.
Thousands of coca farmers and workers, including miners who blew up dynamite sticks on cobbled colonial streets, rallied in the center of La Paz only blocks away from a presidential palace guarded by a ring of riot police and armored vehicles.
"For God's sake Goni, Go!" shouted student Rene Roca, draped in a multicolored Inca flag. Goni is a common name for President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whose free market policies are blamed for the poverty of this landlocked nation.
The month-long revolt against Sanchez de Lozada's U.S.-backed policies has resulted in a steady stream of fatalities, with the estimated death toll now at 55. No official figures were available.
Analysts say Sanchez de Lozada, whose coalition is crumbling, will have to make concessions to protesters to prevent the violence from toppling his administration.
At least 14 rights activists and intellectuals went on hunger strike on Wednesday to demand the president quit, the common rallying cry of demonstrators.
In El Alto, an area on the outskirts of La Paz that has been a focus of protests, five cars of a cargo train were blown off a bridge with explosives, falling on to a road below. There were no reported victims.
Protests have spread across Bolivia, engulfing Cochabamba, southeast of La Paz, the center of unpopular, U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate coca. Marchers threw rocks at police and Molotov cocktails at a government palace.
The government in South America's poorest nation, where six out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day, is under attack for a host of grievances ranging from plans to export natural gas to the United States to the eradication of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine.
Columns of workers, farmers and miners from the region surrounding La Paz have streamed toward the high-altitude capital. Some miners were stopped by the army but others have reached the capital. The government says it will not allow them to reach the city center, accusing them of planning violence.
There were sporadic clashes in La Paz as police fired tear gas at demonstrators in the morning.
The city was nearly cut off from supplies of fuel and basic foodstuffs like bread and eggs. Banks and schools were shut and Indian markets sold only rotting vegetables. Congress closed its doors, airlines could not land at the one international airport and tourists were trapped.
Thousands of Bolivians in the poor outskirts of the city set up barricades of tires and stones along key access routes to the capital and stoned anyone who tried to drive past.
The United States on Wednesday warned citizens not to travel to La Paz and the surrounding area.
Pope John Paul also appealed for an end to the violence in his weekly general audience and urged citizens of the mostly Catholic country to "prefer civil dialogue and seek fair solutions."
Spanish oil and gas group Repsol has temporarily halted plans to export gas from Bolivia.
Criticism of the gas project through Chile, which has a border dispute with Bolivia, is one of the rallying cries of the Indian-led opposition's campaign to force Sanchez de Lozada to resign. Sanchez de Lozada on Monday shelved any decision on the project until next year.
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