Bolivian troops kill miner, crisis deepens

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LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivian troops shot and killed a miner in protests today as lawmakers suspended a special congressional session after failing to agree on how to replace President Carlos Mesa and defuse the crisis. The death was the first in nearly four weeks of protests by an impoverished Indian majority demanding nationalisation of Bolivia’s huge natural gas resources that have triggered the worst turmoil in Mesa’s 19 months in government. Soldiers fired on a bus with miners heading to demonstrations in Sucre, Interior Minister Saul Lara told reporters. Two more miners were wounded, he said. Lawmakers had gathered in Sucre to vote on Mesa’s resignation and whether to replace him with Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez. But the senate chief suspended the session without giving any alternative date, congress members said. “There will be no session today, we don’t have the conditions to hold one,” Santa Cruz province deputy Guido Anez told Reuters. Bolivia’s constitution calls for Vaca Diez, a wealthy rancher, to assume the presidency. But lawmakers are facing pressure from Indian leaders and many Bolivians who see him as unacceptable and are demanding a new elections. Police firing tear gas battled peasants and miners who set off sticks of dynamite and set fire to tires in the streets of Sucre to protest the miners death and demand Vaca Diez step aside to allow Bolivians to go to the ballot box. Bolivia’s military commanders earlier called for calm and said they would support Congress in its ruling. “We will respect the Congress’ decision … as long as there is no break with the constitution and no break with democracy, the armed forces will remain the supervisors of this process,” Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Adm. Luis Aranda said. We are at maximum alert.” Mesa resigned after three weeks of blockades by Indian groups calling for total state control over energy reserves and a special assembly to grant them more power. Protests have caused fuel and food shortages in La Paz and stoked fears of violence in South America’s poorest nation. Spain has sent an air force plane to neighbouring Peru on Thursday in case it needed to evacuate Spanish citizens from Bolivia. Analysts said Vaca Diez is seen by many Bolivians as representing a failed traditional, political class. But he appears to have the support of his MIR party and the MNR, the largest bloc in the 157-member legislature to try for the presidency. Evo Morales, a left-leaning former coca grower and indigenous leader, warned that his MAS party will not allow Vaca Diez to assume the presidency. He has called for civil disobedience to pressure for elections. Bolivia’s deepening crisis prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a senior official to the country at the request of the government. Protesters in the militant city of El Alto, a sprawling poor area in the mountains above La Paz, have vowed they will maintain their blockades. They say nationalisation is a key demand they will not negotiate. Peasant protesters have also blocked several natural gas fields operated by foreign companies in eastern Santa Cruz province and forced them to halt production. Spanish energy group Repsol YPF said protests had forced it to reduce output by an amount equal to 0.3 per cent of its global production and Brazil’s Petrobras warned civil unrest could hurt its natural gas supplies. Mesa, who came to power in 2003 after his predecessor was ousted during a bloody Indian siege, urged early elections after offering to resign. The former TV presenter with little Congress support was weakened as Bolivia became polarised during his term. Indian groups say Bolivia’s energy riches have benefited only the white, European-descended elite. They want an assembly on constitutional reform to give them more representation. But in wealthy Santa Cruz, business leaders fed up with what they see as pandering to radical indigenous groups are demanding more autonomy from La Paz. Weeks of often violent protests and roadblocks in La Paz have left gas stations dry and meat and bread increasingly scarce. Several airlines have suspended flights and the United States ordered nonemergency personnel to leave its embassy. – REUTERS

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