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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 03:41 GMT 04:41 UK
Bolivia head makes referendum offer
Anti-government protesters in La Paz, Bolivia
Protesters did not immediately welcome the referendum offer
Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada has offered to hold a referendum on the natural gas export plan that has sparked days of violent protests.

He added a warning that if the violence continues, "it will become evident that protesters were aiming to thwart constitutional order".

Opposition leaders immediately rejected the offer, and made new calls for the president to resign.

Two miners were killed and several injured on Wednesday as thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police and troops.

Around 2,000 miners were marching on the main city, La Paz, when violence broke out in the town of Patacamaya, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.

Unofficial reports say as many as 63 people have been killed since the unrest began a month ago.

La Paz has been virtually paralysed with worsening food and fuel shortages and protesters are manning barricades on major highways into the city.

Deaths

Government spokesman Javier Torres Goitia told the BBC that the president would not resign because a majority of people in several provinces wanted him to remain in office - and he did not want to split the country.

Mr Goitia also said several protesters in La Paz had used firearms and mortars against the police and were burning shops.

Soldiers guarding the presidential palace
The presidential palace in La Paz is still under guard
Violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces have claimed dozens of lives, mainly in La Paz and its impoverished industrial suburb El Alto.

The Bolivian army has deployed tanks to protect the presidential palace in La Paz, and there are reports that the protests may be spreading to other parts of the country.

President Sanchez de Lozada has already postponed the controversial gas export scheme until 31 December, pending consultations with the opposition.

One of the main companies involved in the project - Spain's Repsol-YPF - has also decided to puts its plans on hold, blaming the unrest.

The plan is unpopular partly because the pipeline may run through Chile to the coast.

Many Bolivians remain antagonistic towards Chile, following an 1879 war which resulted in Bolivia becoming a landlocked country at the expense of an extended Chilean coastline.

'Plot'

But, says BBC correspondent Elliott Gotkine in Cochabamba, this was never just about gas.

Bolivia is South America's poorest nation and the peasants want land reform, the elderly want better pensions and the workers want more money, he says.

Crowds show bullet cases after clashes with troops in El Alto
Impoverished Bolivians fear they will see little benefit from gas sales
The president's free-market reform strategy, centring on good relations with the United States, has bred particular resentment.

President Sanchez de Lozada has insisted he will not go and alleges there is a plot encouraged from abroad aimed at destroying Bolivia's democracy.

But Vice-President Carlos Mesa has withdrawn his support for the president's policies and the Minister of Economic Development, Jorge Torres Oblea, has resigned.

The United States has backed President Sanchez de Lozada, whose five-year term in office is not due to expire until 2007, saying it will not support any regime that resulted from undemocratic means.

Conditions in Bolivia have caused concern in Europe. Britain has warned its citizens to avoid travelling in the area around La Paz, while France and Germany have urged their nationals to avoid the country altogether.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Emily Buchanan
"The worst civil unrest since the country returned to democracy"



SEE ALSO:
Q and A: Bolivian gas protests
16 Oct 03  |  Americas
Papers split on Bolivia crisis
15 Oct 03  |  Americas
In pictures: Bolivia clashes
13 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Bolivia
06 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Bolivia
14 Oct 03  |  Country profiles


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