Morales slaps state of emergency on Bolivian region
LA PAZ — Bolivia's President Evo Morales ordered emergency measures in one of five states where unrest against his rule has flared into violence, as the crisis engulfing his nation pulled in other Latin American countries and even the United States.
Morales issued the decree Friday that put soldiers and police in charge of the northeastern state of Pando after youths in the territory ransacked government offices Friday, and following the deaths there of eight pro-government demonstrators on Thursday.
Defense Minister Walker San Miguel announced the order, saying bars would close early, the carrying of firearms or explosives was prohibited, and demonstrations were outlawed without police permission. He added that several Peruvians were suspected to be among those who opened fire on some of the eight victims from Thursday.
Bolivian television reported that troops had taken control of the airport of Cojiba, in Pando.
The decree heightened tensions in Bolivia, which has been wracked by four days of violent clashes between pro- and anti-government militants.
A challenge by rebel governors in five of Bolivia's nine states -- Pando, Beni, Tarija, Chuquisaca and Santa Cruz -- to Morales's bid to impose a socialist constitution and to redefine land ownership in the country is fuelling the confrontations.
The country has effectively become polarized between the western Andean half where the indigenous majority -- from which Morales himself hails -- mostly live, and the more prosperous eastern lowlands, where an elite of European and mixed descent is pushing for autonomy and greater control over lucrative gas fields there.
The stakes have risen even higher by Morales's decision to expel the US ambassador, a move which triggered "solidarity" moves by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who did the same to the US envoy in his country, and Honduran President Manuel Zelaya who refused to accept the credentials of the new US ambassador.
Chavez had also threatened to intervene militarily in Bolivia if his ally Morales was toppled or killed. That triggered indignant protests in parts of Bolivia on Friday where the Venezuelan flag was burned, and a rejection of Venezuelan interference by the Bolivian armed forces.
The United States retaliated by ordering Bolivia's and Venezuela's ambassadors out of the country.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the decisions by Morales and Chavez "reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face internal challenges."
Morales's claim that the US ambassador was encouraging division in Bolivia by supporting opposition groups, and Chavez's allegation the US envoy in his country was implicated in an alleged coup plot against him by Venezuelan military officers, were "false, and the leaders of those countries know it," McCormack said.
Chavez's hosting of two Russian TU-160 strategic bombers in his country this week -- something the Venezuelan leader called a "warning" to the United States -- was especially unsettling to Washington, given the increasingly US-Russian antagonism triggered by Russia's recent military actions in the former Soviet state of Georgia.
McCormack declined to draw any link between the bombers' deployment and the presence of US warships off Georgian waters neighboring Russia.