Marchers enter Bolivian capital, demand leader quit
( 2003-10-17 10:30) (Agencies)
Tens of thousands of poor indigenous Bolivians marched into the capital on Thursday as their leaders rejected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's bid to defuse a deadly revolt, vowing to protest until the "butcher" quit.
There were sporadic clashes between protesters with slingshots and troops with tear gas and rubber bullets who set up a ring around the nearby presidential palace in the world's highest capital. Local radio said eight people were hurt.
Indian leaders, angered at deaths of an estimated 74 people in the last month, said the president's offer to change some of his hated U.S.-backed, free-market policies was too little, too late. His support within the government also eroded.
Marchers, including old indigenous women in their traditional bowler hats and farmers wielding sticks, waved the multicolored flag of the Incas as they marched past boarded-up banks and shops in the paralyzed the city center.
"The only thing the people want is this butcher's resignation," indigenous leader Felipe Quispe told local radio.
In Bolivia's worst crisis in over 20 years of democracy, mostly indigenous protesters are furious with endemic poverty and inequality. Middle class families, also suffering from a blockade of food, took to the streets to bang pots and pans.
A U.S.-led effort to eradicate coca plantations and an unpopular plan to export natural gas sparked the unrest in the landlocked nation of 8 million, mainly indigenous, people.
Sanchez de Lozada said on Thursday, "I cannot quit because it would mean the end of democracy in Bolivia, and probably the disintegration of the country."
But he lost the support of his vice president, Carlos Mesa, a man whom some Indian leaders approve of as a possible replacement for the president.
Mesa, a respected journalist, told local TV, "I remain firm as vice president ... (but) I will not serve as an instrument for the polarization of Bolivian society."
U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee told Reuters TV, "We support constitutional government ... (Sanchez de Lozada) should be respected as president."
In some parts of La Paz, which is about 11,900 feet above sea level, police stepped in to calm restless crowds jostling for scarce supplies like bread. The blockade of the capital gradually made basic food scarce, nearly tripling the price of eggs.
Blocks away from protests, streets were empty except for some pedestrians and a few nervous taxi drivers who were hissed at by people trying to bring the city to a virtual standstill.
"This protest is bad for all of us but Goni must go," said Sonia Mendoza, a pharmacist who said she was running short on basic medicines. She walked one hour from her house to work behind closed shutters. She had nothing for breakfast. For lunch she planned a soup, for dinner just a cup of tea.
The Permanent Assembly of Human Rights, Bolivia's main human rights group, raised the cumulative death toll estimate from 55 to 74 people on Thursday and said 198 others have been injured, the group's director, Waldo Albarracin, told Reuters.
The president promised on Wednesday a referendum on the gas project, a reform of energy laws and constitutional changes, key demands of the opposition.
But time for talking has ended for many Bolivian, furious at the deaths of Indian miners and farmers shot by troops and police. Some children scream at the sight of armed police on motorcycles speeding through their neighborhoods on patrol.
Protests have gathered momentum and spread throughout the country. Central Obrera Boliviana, a major union, said thousands of its women would go on hunger strike in Roman Catholic churches. Men would dig holes in roads across Bolivia to widen blockades that have paralyzed the economy.
In La Paz, some 70 people, including intellectuals and rights activists, are on hunger strikes.
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