Factions clash in Bolivia's lowlands
LA PAZ (AFP) — Hundreds of supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales' socialist reform movement clashed with opponents Friday, with four people injured and the town hall occupied by demonstrators, local officials and hospital sources said.
The demonstration in Cobija, capital of Pando province, came amid rising tension between the governors of six mostly rich provinces and Morales, who is pushing through a constitutional reform to redistribute wealth to benefit Bolivia's poor highland dwellers.
"Waving white handkerchiefs and asking for peace," hundreds of demonstrators who turned out in Cobija to support the Morales administration were attacked by university students and local government workers, Mayor Luis Flores told local Erbol radio.
"I've just been told that a few moments ago they took over the town hall, led by thugs at the governor's orders," said the mayor, referring to Pando Governor Leopoldo Fernandez, one of six provincial leaders staunchly opposed to Morales' reforms.
"It's regrettable what we're going through in Cobija, which at the moment is a no-man's land," Flores said, adding that he feared for his life and his family.
Police used tear gas to disperse the melee and reports that a little girl had died asphyxiated by the gases were later denied by hospital officials.
"There has been no death ... in the demonstration. We've received four patients ... two elderly people, a pregnant woman and a police officer (who were injured in the street clashes) and they're being attended to at our hospital," said a doctor at Cobija's Fernandez Gutierrez hospital.
Morales has beefed up the Cobija police force by 100 officers to deal with the violence, prompting Governor Fernandez to charge the president was using the city "as a beachhead to establish a totalitarian and dictatorial regime in the country."
Violence has wracked Bolivia since Morales set up an assembly to rewrite the constitution that opponents fear will usher in a leftist regime similar to the one Morales' friend and ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is building.
Six provinces including Pando went on strike on Wednesday to oppose the reform movement and weekend clashes between protesters and police left three people dead in the city of Sucre.
More protests are planned for next week, when opposition leaders said a hunger strike would be held across the country.