September 12, 2008 / 2:49 PM / 10 years ago

Bolivia split in two by protests; deaths mourned

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Bolivia was split in two by protests and roadblocks on Friday, a day after eight people died in clashes between opponents and supporters of leftist President Evo Morales.

The president and the governor of Tarija, home to most of the country’s huge natural gas reserves, agreed to meet on Friday for talks to end four days of confrontation that have injured dozens of people.

But three other rebel governors who oppose Morales’ socialist reforms rejected the idea of talks and blamed the president for the violence and the chaos in Bolivia’s natural gas industry, the country’s biggest source of income.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, and the United States expelled each other’s ambassadors on Thursday after Morales accused the U.S. of backing protests against him.

The rightist governors in eastern Bolivia have rebelled against the popular president, demanding autonomy and rejecting his plans to overhaul the constitution and break up ranches to give land to poor Indians.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia declared 24 hours of national mourning for the eight deaths in the Amazonian region of Pando. Most of the dead were pro-Morales farmers who the government said were killed by people associated with opposition politicians.

“We demand these coup mongers change their attitude, obey the law and obey democracy,” Garcia said late on Thursday.

Garcia said the government would guarantee energy and food for all Bolivians despite roadblocks that have complicated transportation in the eastern part of the country.

Neighbors of impoverished Bolivia expressed concern that opposition groups were trying to topple Morales, who survived a recall election in August with an overwhelming 67 percent support.

Morales is Bolivia’s first president of indigenous descent and has pledged a socialist transformation. The strongest opposition comes from the wealthy eastern part of the country, run by elites who are mostly of European descent.

Venezuela President Chavez said he would go to any lengths to defend Morales, implying military action, and threw out the United States ambassador in Caracas in sympathy with Bolivia.

Argentina and Brazil said they would not tolerate any attempts to overthrow Bolivia’s government and offered to broker talks between the two sides.

But Bolivian newspapers reported on Friday that Morales asked neighbors not to send delegations yet, while he worked to resolve the situation internally.

Although the government has sent troops to protect natural gas pipelines and pumping stations, police and soldiers have largely stayed off the streets in Santa Cruz because they were a target for protesters.

Sabotage to valves and pipelines forced Bolivia to temporarily shut off natural gas exports to Brazil on Thursday, and exports to Argentina continued cut on Friday.

Opposition groups have taken over government buildings in Santa Cruz, the biggest city in the east and an anti-Morales stronghold. (Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by David Storey)

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