South American leaders back Bolivia's Morales

SANTIAGO Tue Sep 16, 2008 6:19am BST

1 of 2. Bolivia's President Evo Morales speaks during a news conference inside the La Moneda presidential palace after a meeting in Santiago September 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Sanchez

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - South American leaders told Bolivia's rebel governors to cease violent protests and strongly backed leftist President Evo Morales, who left an emergency summit in Chile and headed home on Tuesday for talks with his opponents.

At least 16 people died last week in impoverished Bolivia as Morales' opponents clashed with his supporters, blocked highways, sabotaged natural gas pipelines and sacked government buildings.

Morales is popular but his push for deep socialist reforms has met with violent resistance from movements led by rightist governors in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. He accused the opposition of planning to topple him.

"We condemn and reject any attempt at a civilian coup or rupture of institutional order. We will not recognize any situation (leadership) that comes from that sort of action," Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said at the end of Monday's summit of nine South American presidents in Santiago.

The leaders at the summit said the rightist governors, who want more of Bolivia's energy revenue for their provinces and more autonomy, must end occupations of dozens of central government buildings as a condition for talks.

While the summit took place in Chile, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia was holding preliminary talks in La Paz with one of the governors, Mario Cossio, of Tarija.

Cossio represents a group of four eastern Bolivia governors who vehemently oppose Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president. Talks are expected to continue on Tuesday and perhaps even turn into formal negotiations with all governors.

DIVIDED OVER CONSTITUTION

Perennially unstable Bolivia has massive natural gas reserves that are crucial to development in the region, and neighbours are eager to preserve the Morales presidency.

At the summit was Bolivia ally, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who is stridently anti-Washington. Both he and Morales kicked out their U.S. ambassadors last week, saying the United States was backing Morales' opponents in Bolivia.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a moderate leftist who leads the region's biggest economy, also attended. Brazil is Bolivia's top foreign investor and is heavily dependent on natural gas exports from its neighbour.

Bolivia is divided over a constitution Morales is trying to push through to formalize rights for the country's Indian majority and break up large farms to give land to poor peasant farmers.

Conflict between the two sides deepened after Morales and the governors were strongly endorsed in an August recall vote.

The army arrested 10 people on Monday accused of organizing anti-government protests in Cobija, the capital of sparsely populated Pando province in the Amazon near Brazil.

The government declared martial law in the province on Friday, saying opposition groups had massacred pro-Morales peasants. Officials have said 16 to 28 people died in that incident in rural Pando, as well as two more in Cobija.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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