Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Monday, 2 June 2008 12:51 UK

Bolivian regions 'back autonomy'

Pro-autonomy supporter in Pando, Bolivia
Beni and Pando provinces were following Santa Cruz's lead

Two Bolivian provinces have voted overwhelmingly in favour of regional autonomy, exit polls suggest.

More than 80% of voters in the lowland agricultural provinces of Beni and Pando opted for autonomy measures, the polls for the ATB TV channel indicate.

The vote was organised by opponents of left-wing President Evo Morales. Clashes broke out in some towns between autonomy backers and his supporters.

Bolivia's interior minister dismissed the polls as illegal and separatist.

Alfredo Rada, speaking at the presidential palace, said they were unconstitutional and had only served to fuel internal division.

Four weeks ago, a similar referendum was held in Bolivia's richest province, Santa Cruz, where 85.6% supported autonomy. Turnout was 62%, accordding to the Santa Cruz Electoral Court.

Analysts say the votes reflect the hostility of the country's business and land-owning elite towards Mr Morales, Bolivia's first president of indigenous descent, who is pushing for land reform measures.

Recall vote

Several people were reported injured in scattered skirmishes in Trinidad, state capital of Beni, on Sunday.

Ballot boxes were also burnt in protests in the small town of Filadelfia, in Pando province, according to local media.

Violence in the Bolivian town of Trinidad

The final results of the ballots are not expected for five days, electoral officials said.

The president, who has more than two years left in office, faces a recall referendum on his leadership in August.

If successful in the ballot, Mr Morales says he wants to hold a public referendum on a draft constitution which has been awaiting approval since last year.

Bolivia map

The constitution aims to enshrine reforms such as land redistribution to Bolivia's indigenous majority and sharing of wealth with the poorer western regions.

However, critics say it cedes too much control to the government in La Paz.

Mr Morales's opponents in the eastern states - home to a large part of Bolivia's oil and gas deposits - argue that his plans would unfairly privilege indigenous groups and would mean greater central control.

The proposals also include allowing the president to stand for re-election for another five-year term.

Another autonomy vote is planned for 22 June in Tarija, which has major gas reserves.

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