Thousands of protesters and hundreds of police clashed outside the embassy [Reuters]

Bolivian riot police have clashed with supporters of Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, as they tried to storm the United States embassy in the country's capital, La Paz.

Thousands of protesters gathered on Monday to demand that the US extradite the country's former president and defence minister, so they can stand trial.

The protest followed comments by Carlos Sanchez Berzain, the former Bolivian defence minister, who told a local radio station last week that a court in the US had granted him political asylum.

The protesters blame Sanchez Berzain and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the former president who also lives in the US, for the deaths of 60 people and the wounding of hundreds more in an army-led crackdown on anti-government protests in 2003.

"We want Bolivia to be free, not a Yankee colony," the protesters shouted, the majority whom were from Bolivia's large indigenous population.

Hundreds of riot police fought rock-throwing demonstrators away from the fortress-like embassy building on Monday and ended up firing tear gas to disperse them.

Political upheaval

Morales, a left-wing ally of Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez, often criticises Sanchez de Lozada for his pro-business policies while in office and for being too close to the US government.

Sanchez de Lozada stepped down as president during the political upheaval of 2003 and fled to the United States 13 months into his second term as president of the poor South American country.

"The government of George Bush has decided to give refuge to the butcher Sanchez Berzain, and also I suspect to the genocidal Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ... we cannot tolerate [that]," Roberto de la Cruz, one of the leaders of the protest told a local radio station.

The US embassy in La Paz has neither confirmed nor denied if Sanchez Berzain has been granted political asylum, saying that his immigration status is his private matter.

In September Bolivia's top court asked the government to start extradition proceedings against Sanchez de Lozada.

But US ambassador Philip Goldberg was quoted as saying by the Bolivian daily La Razon on Monday that Bolivia has not made a formal extradition request.

Morales is a fierce critic of US foreign policy, which he often describes as "imperialistic".