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More resignations over Bolivia road row
Backlash causes second cabinet member and two officials to step down after police crackdown on indigenous protesters.
Last Modified: 28 Sep 2011 01:08

Bolivia's interior minister, Sacha Llorenti, his top deputy and another official have resigned over a violent police crackdown on indigenous activists protesting against the construction of a highway through a national park and their territory.

Llorenti made the announcement in La Paz on Tuesday after he became the focus of fierce criticism since riot police fired tear gas and arrested hundreds at a Sunday crackdown on a activists who were 41-days into a protest march against the highway.

Earlier in the day Carlos Romero, the president's chief of staff, announced that deputy foreign minister Marcos Farfan had also resigned over the incident, saying that Llorenti's top deputy would "submit to an investigation and will have to take responsibility for the events on Sunday".

Llorenti, a former human rights activist, said he was resigning in an attempt to avoid politicising the incident and to defend himself from criticism over the crackdown.

He also blamed Farfan for the incident, saying his top advisor oversaw the police force which broke up the protests and acted "at the suggestion of some police officers".

The director of Bolivia's migration agency, Maria Rene Quiroga, blasted Sunday's incident as "unforgivable" and resigned on Tuesday.

These latest resignations follow that of defense minister Cecilia Chacon, who resigned post on Monday in a show of disgust over the incident, in which one baby was reportedly killed by tear gas inhalation.

Replacements were quickly sworn in: Wilfredo Chavez, a Morales loyalist, replaced Llorenti, while Ruben Saavedra, who was defense minister until April, took up his old job again. Morales swore them in late on Tuesday.

The backlash is a major setback for President Evo Morales, who by stubbornly insisting on the 300km jungle highway had alienated many of his indigenous core supporters in this poor, landlocked nation where more than two in three people are members of indigenous groups.

Construction suspended

Morales, meanwhile, suspended construction of the highway on Monday hours after police released hundreds of activists who had blocked roads and stopped airport traffic in an attempt to prevent other arrested protesters from being taken out of the area.

"We repudiate the excesses yesterday at the march," Morales said, adding that a high-level commission including international representatives should be formed to investigate the crackdown.

One young child reportedly died as a result of tear gas inhalation.

The crackdown came 41 days into an indigenous-led march against the plan to build the highway that would connect Brazil with Pacific ports in Chile and Peru.

In a brief televised address, Morales said he would let the two affected regions, Cochabamba and Beni, to decide whether to proceed with the Brazil-financed road.

'Extreme violence'

As a result of the crackdown, several people suffered minor injuries, according to local media reports, which was criticised by opposition politicians, the ombudsman and several government officials.

"This is not the way! We agreed to do things differently," Chacon had written in her resignation letter, which was published by Bolivian media on Monday.

Ivan Canelas, the country's communications minister, said that police had no choice when responding to the protests.

"The march was defused because it had become a source of violence," he told the Reuters news agency.

Police surged into the demonstrators' camp with "extreme violence", veteran activist Maria Carvajal told the AFP news agency. "I could not believe what was happening."

On Monday, protesters reacted by setting barricades on fire on the airport runway in the town of Rurrenabaque, in an attempt to free about 300 marchers who were being held by authorities, Mayor Yerko Nunez told local media.

In La Paz, the capital, riot police set up a security cordon around the Quemada government building, as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside.

Other protests were also held in the central city of Cochabamba, where students marched and majority Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples began a hunger strike.

Protests were also held in the northern province of Beni and in Santa Cruz.

Source:
Agencies
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