Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 13:24 UK

Anti-Morales protests hit Bolivia


The opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz saw violent protests

Anti-government protesters have stormed public buildings in eastern Bolivia amid a deepening row between President Evo Morales and his opponents.

The biggest protest was in Santa Cruz, where demonstrators raided several offices and clashed with riot police.

Bolivia's energy-rich eastern provinces oppose Mr Morales's attempts to redirect gas revenues to poorer areas.

Troops have meanwhile been deployed to guard gas pipelines to guarantee exports to Brazil and Argentina.

Since last week, anti-government demonstrators have been blocking roads and occupying buildings in eastern regions, which are home to Bolivia's important natural gas reserves.

But Tuesday saw an escalation of their action and some of the worst violence in the country for several months.

Youths try to kick down shutters on a building in Santa Cruz on 9 Sep
The government condemned the unrest as a "civil coup"

Hundreds of people raided the state-run telecommunications company, the tax agency, the local state TV network and the land reform institute in the city of Santa Cruz.

Clashes broke out between the protesters and riot police, who were forced to take cover.

Trouble also flared in the provinces of Beni, Pando, and Tarija as opposition activists raided public buildings.

"Fascist, violent and racist people attacked institutions...that belong to all Bolivians," said Interior Minister Alfredo Rada.

In the Chaco area, protesters stormed a station controlling a natural gas pipeline and tried unsuccessfully to cut exports to Brazil, officials quoted by Reuters news agency said.


Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America but they are situated in the east of the country, where Mr Morales faces his fiercest opponents.

Brazil, and to a lesser extent Argentina, are Bolivia's major gas customers and any interruption to supply would have a serious effect on both economies as well as damaging Bolivia's reputation as a reliable supplier, says the BBC's Daniel Schweimler in Buenos Aires.

On Monday, the government announced that soldiers were being sent to guard natural gas fields and pipelines.

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking after reshuffling his cabinet on 8 Sep
Mr Morales came to power in 2006 promising reform

"The government will not allow the interruption of natural gas exports," said Energy Secretary Carlos Villegas.

Shortly afterwards Mr Villegas was moved to the development planning ministry while Saul Avalos took over at the energy ministry.

The changes were part of a cabinet reshuffle seen as an attempt by President Morales to tackle the growing opposition to his plans to radically reform the way Bolivia is governed.

The president wants to give more power to the country's indigenous and poor communities, by carrying out land reform and redistributing gas revenues.

Mr Morales's attempts to change the constitution are fiercely opposed by opposition governors who run five of Bolivia's nine regions.

They and their supporters want greater autonomy as well as more control over revenues of natural gas in their areas.

Mr Morales is seeking approval in Congress to hold a referendum on 7 December on his proposed constitutional changes.

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