Though Mesa would not be drawn on the names of the new ministers, he said on Saturday they were selected from outside of traditional political circles. He promised to hold a referendum on controversial gas export plans.

Mesa - a journalist and political independent - was sworn in on Friday after country-wide protests over gas export and coca eradication plans forced businessman Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to step down.

Mesa also vowed to battle the economic marginalisation that has forced thousands of Bolivians to seek a better life abroad.

“Rest assured, we are going to work so that this country makes room for fellow Bolivians who had to emigrate to be able to live the kind of life they have found in countries like Argentina,” Mesa told Reuters.

Clashes between police and demonstrators, which have paralysed the country over the past 33 days, have claimed some 80 lives.

Issues addressed

As soon as Mesa donned the presidential sash, he addressed key concerns of Bolivia's majority Indians, proposing early elections. His concessions had an immediate impact, with normality in and around the capital beginning to return.

“We regret the circumstances including the loss of life that led to ex-president Sanchez de Lozada's resignation”

US State Department

Mesa, who had been Sanchez de Lozada's deputy, said on Saturday his government would also revise the tax structure that applies to energy companies, but would not revise changes to privatisation legislation or invested capital.

Many Bolivians have said foreign companies earn too much. They argued that Sanchez de Lozada’s proposed plan to build a pipeline through Chile to export gas to markets in the US and Mexico would result in the country receiving a meagre 18% of the project’s total profits.

The lion’s share would go to Chile and external investors, they said.

Rallying call
  
Opposition leaders piled onto the pipeline protests a series of grievances against the former president, especially his free-market economic policies.

Sanchez de Lozada began his second five-year presidential term in August 2002 after having served from 1993 to 1997. He enforced an International Monetary Fund-backed austerity program to bring the finances of the impoverished country into order.

His resignation takes to six the number of elected South American presidents to be drummed out of office in as many years by popular protest.

He met the same fate as Fernando de la Rua of Argentina, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador, Raul Cubas of Paraguay and Abdala Bucaram of Ecuador.

Support

Mesa received messages of support from Organisation of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. US Ambassador David Greenlee also plans to attend Mesa’s formal swearing in ceremony.

Sanchez de Lozada resignation
was met with elation

Mesa said he would not complete Sanchez de Lozada's term, which ends in 2007, but instead that he would head a “transitional government.” It would call for new elections after holding a referendum on gas exports and a constitutional convention.
  
The United States paid tribute to Sanchez de Lozada and expressed regret for the circumstances that led to his resignation.

“We regret the circumstances including the loss of life that led to ex-president Sanchez de Lozada's resignation,” the US state department said a statement early on Saturday. 

Problem unsolved
  
Still, Bolivia’s problems are far from over. Though opposition leader Evo Morales said the forces that ousted Sanchez de Lozada would give Mesa time to get established and welcomed the referendum on the pipeline, Indian principal Felipe Quispe said otherwise.

“We are not going to unblock highways,” he told a crowd of workers Saturday.
  
“We are not going to stop marching or striking until Mesa meets our demands,” he added.