updated 6/25/2008 8:52:23 PM ET 2008-06-26T00:52:23

Coca growers in Bolivia's Chapare province said Wednesday that they will suspend projects financed by the U.S. government aid agency and instead seek funding from Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez.

Leaders in the key coca-growing region accused the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, of using its aid to undermine leftist President Evo Morales, who rose to prominence as leader of the coca growers union.

"We want USAID to go. If USAID leaves, we will have aid from Venezuela, which is unconditioned and in solidarity," Chapare coca leader Julio Salazar told The Associated Press by telephone. Venezuela already is a major financial backer of Bolivia.

USAID gave $87 million in aid to Bolivia in 2007, including $11.9 million to Chapare, mostly for road building and projects to help farmers to grow alternatives to coca.

Asterio Romero, vice president of Chapare's main coca-growing group, said growers on Tuesday agreed to cancel the USAID's operations in the region and gave it until Thursday to leave.

A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the embassy would not comment because it has not yet been officially informed by the coca growers.

Coca leaves are the main ingredient in cocaine, but they also have traditional, medicinal and religious uses among South America's Andean people.

Morales has accused the aid agency of financing his opponents, including groups promoting regional autonomy from his government.

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Tuesday he wasn't familiar with the coca-growers' decision but said his government wants to make U.S. aid to Bolivia more "transparent."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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