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Page last updated at 03:54 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 04:54 UK

Neighbours back Bolivian leader

South American presidents during the Unasur meeting in Santiago, Chile, 15 September 2008
The leaders said Mr Morales' mandate had been ratified by a big majority

An emergency summit of South American leaders to discuss the turmoil in Bolivia has given its full backing to President Evo Morales.

Nine presidents condemned last week's political violence in which 30 people were killed, and called on Bolivia's opposition to end its protests.

The opposition is angry at government plans for a new constitution.

Mr Morales has likened the unrest in opposition-controlled regions of his country to an attempted coup.

He said the emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in Santiago, Chile, was important as democracy had to be defended not only in Bolivia but all of South America.

The unrest, in which protesters have blocked roads and occupied public buildings, represents the most serious challenge to Mr Morales since he took office almost three years ago.

Energy fears

In a statement, the regional leaders offered "their full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority".

They warned that any government formed following an illegal removal of Mr Morales would not be recognised as legitimate.

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Arriving in Santiago for the meeting, Mr Morales said he had come "to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d'etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days".

The unrest centres on his decision to hold a referendum on a new constitution in December.

Mr Morales says he wants to re-distribute Bolivia's wealth and give a greater voice to the country's large indigenous community.

But opposition leaders oppose the plan and have demanded greater autonomy as well as more control over natural gas revenues in their areas.

Trouble has flared in several eastern provinces and cities last week. Mr Morales declared martial law in the Pando region on Friday.

Downturn in relations

Daniel Schweimler, the BBC's correspondent in the region, says that no one in South America wants the situation in Bolivia to escalate.

President Evo Morales speaks on arrival at Santiago airport on 15 September 2008
Mr Morales wants to give more rights to Bolivia's indigenous community

Neighbouring Brazil and Argentina are particularly worried about their supplies of natural gas, which come from the east of the country where the dispute is at its most severe.

But, our correspondent adds, it is not clear what the meeting in Chile can achieve. Representatives of Bolivia's opposition did not attend the summit.

There have been some talks between the two sides, however.

On Sunday night Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia met opposition representative Mario Cossio, the governor of Tarija province. They agreed to hold more talks when Mr Morales returns from Chile.

The unrest in Bolivia has triggered a downturn in relations with the US.

Last week Bolivia accused the US of supporting the opposition and expelled its ambassador. Venezuela followed suit to show solidarity and Honduras has refused to accept the credentials of a new US envoy.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the unrest in Bolivia was "a conspiracy directed by the US empire", likening it to the 1973 CIA-backed coup which ousted Chile's President Salvador Allende.

The US says it regrets the recent diplomatic expulsions and has rejected Bolivia's allegations against its ambassador.


SEE ALSO
Talks aim to end Bolivian crisis
15 Sep 08 |  Americas
In Bolivia's opposition heartland
14 Sep 08 |  Americas
Move to tackle Bolivian turmoil
14 Sep 08 |  Americas
Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute
12 Sep 08 |  Americas
Anti-Morales protests hit Bolivia
10 Sep 08 |  Americas
Bolivia sets date for referendum
29 Aug 08 |  Americas
Country profile: Bolivia
22 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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