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Bolivia orders state of siege in province

Bolivian President Evo Morales decreed a state of siege and sent troops Friday to an eastern province after street battles between pro- and anti-government activists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bolivian President Evo Morales decreed a state of siege and sent troops Friday to an eastern province where at least eight people were killed in street battles between pro- and anti-government activists.

Troops took control of the airport in Cobija, the capital of Pando province, and fired shots to disperse protesters. Opposition Sen. Ronal Camargo and Fides radio reported one person was killed and several wounded in the operation.

But that information was not confirmed by Defense Minister Walker San Miguel, who announced the government decree alongside Bolivia's interior minister.

The state of siege, which prohibits people from gathering or carrying weapons, aims "to safeguard lives and the collective good," Interior Minister Alfredo Rada told reporters.

The move came hours after Morales and opposition governors from four eastern provinces that are in open revolt against him agreed to talks on ending the crisis.

"We all agree that we have to look for a point of compromise," said Carlos Dabdoub, secretary for autonomy in the eastern province of Santa Cruz — a hotbed of anti-Morales opposition.

Tarija Gov. Mario Cossio announced he would travel to the capital, La Paz, for negotiations. "The first step will be to bring peace to the country, and second to reach an agreement," he said.

Vote on Morales' power
Government opponents are demanding Morales cancel a Dec. 7 nationwide vote on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants from Bolivia's poor indigenous majority.

In a speech in central Cochabamba province, Morales said opponents "have every right to reject the new constitution, but through the vote and not through violence."

The crisis went international after Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of inciting the protests. U.S. officials denied the charges and responded by kicking out Bolivia's ambassador to Washington.

Morales ally and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also kicked out the American envoy to his nation in solidarity with Bolivia.

About 100 people marched to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz on Friday to support the expulsion of Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who angered Morales by meeting recently with the governor of Santa Cruz, a leading opponent of the president.

There were reports of some food and fuel shortages blamed on road blockades. The protests also temporarily disrupted natural gas exports to Brazil — Bolivia's No. 1 customer.

Military's support?
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged restraint and a negotiated end to the violence. He also offered to assist in talks.

Several Latin American governments have publicly supported the Bolivian government in the crisis. On Thursday, Chavez threatened military intervention if Morales were to be overthrown.

Armed forces chief Gen. Luis Trigo said Friday that won't be necessary.

"We will not permit any foreign military force to set foot on national territory," said Trigo, who recently joined other military chiefs in proclaiming their loyalty to the government.

"We must resolve this problem among Bolivians," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told reporters later.

Massive street demonstrations in Bolivia led to the downfall of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003.