September 12, 2008 / 4:47 PM / in 10 years

UPDATE 2-Bolivia violence abates, president to talk to rival

(Updates death toll, adds U.N. and military comments, La Paz protest and Honduras reaction)

By Eduardo Garcia

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales sought on Friday to halt a wave of political violence that killed 10 people, arranging talks with one of four rebel governors who fiercely oppose his socialist reforms.

Unrest abated after three days of protests. But anti-government protesters were blocking roads in much of eastern Bolivia, causing fuel and food shortages in the opposition-controlled city of Santa Cruz.

The governor of natural gas-rich Tarija province, Mario Cossio, said he would meet with Morales late on Friday in La Paz, adding he would represent three other rebel governors who have so far rejected talks.

The governors are demanding autonomy for their regions and blame Morales for the recent violence and sabotage to pipelines that caused chaos in the natural gas industry, Bolivia’s biggest source of income.

“We’re open to dialogue not only with the governors, but also with the participation of mayors and different social sectors,” said Morales, who has angered opponents with plans to overhaul the constitution and break up ranches to give land to poor Indians.

The president, who survived a recall election in August with 67 percent of the vote, said it would be difficult to reach an agreement.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, repeated accusations that the opposition was following orders from U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, whom he threw out of the country this week.

Washington retaliated by expelling Bolivia’s ambassador and the State Department said on Friday that Morales’ actions were a sign of “weakness and desperation.”

Dozens of pro-government supporters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in La Paz on Friday, chanting anti-American slogans, but there was no violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced deep concern about the unrest, and called for restraint, his office said.

NATIONAL MOURNING

The death toll in the Amazon region of Pando rose to 10, most of them pro-government farmers, said Deputy Minister for Social Movements Sacha Llorenti, who called the killings a “massacre” by groups linked to opposition politicians.

Morales, a former coca farmer, has pledged a socialist transformation in Bolivia, but some of his reforms have stalled due to fierce opposition from the wealthier eastern part of the country, run by elites mostly of European descent.

Leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and other countries expressed support for Morales. Honduras told a U.S. envoy not to present his credentials as ambassador in a diplomatic snub in support of Bolivia.

Chavez said he would go to any lengths to defend Morales, implying military action, and expelled the U.S. ambassador, setting off a major diplomatic dispute between Caracas and Washington.

Bolivia’s military said it would not allow any intervention.

“To the president of Venezuela, Mr. Hugo Chavez, and to the international community, we say that the armed forces (of Bolivia) emphatically reject any foreign intervention of any kind, wherever they be from,” armed forces Commander in Chief Luis Trigo said in a televised statement.

Argentina and Brazil said they would not tolerate any attempts to overthrow Morales and offered to broker talks, but he declined their help for the time being.

The government has sent troops to protect natural gas facilities, but police and soldiers have largely stayed off the streets in Santa Cruz because protesters had targeted them.

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

Opposition groups continued to occupy government buildings in Santa Cruz, the largest city in eastern Bolivia. (With reporting by Marco Aquino and Carlos Quiroga in La Paz. Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Simon Gardner and Peter Cooney)

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