Bolivian security forces have clashed with supporters of the exiled former president, Evo Morales, leaving at least five people dead, and escalating the challenge to the interim government to restore stability.
Hospital director Guadalberto Lara said that most of the dead in Sacaba, in the centre of the country, as well as some of the dozens more who were injured, had bullet wounds. Witnesses said police opened fire on protesters, who were calling for the return of Morales from exile in Mexico.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Lara said, calling it the worst violence he’s seen in his 30-year career.
Thousands of largely indigenous protesters, many coca leaf growers, had gathered peacefully in Sacaba on Friday morning. But fighting began when many tried to cross a military checkpoint near the city of Cochabamba, where Morales supporters and foes have clashed for weeks.
Emeterio Colque Sánchez, a 23-year-old university student, said he saw the bodies of several protesters who had been fatally shot.
Morales, who has been granted asylum in Mexico, said on Twitter that a massacre had occurred and he described Bolivia’s interim government as a dictatorship.
Bolivia’s ombudsman’s office said it regretted the death of five people during the joint police-military operation. It called on the interim government to investigate if the security forces had acted within the constitution and international protocols on human rights.
In the capital, La Paz, riot police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators. Elderly people and children were caught in the violence and tried to seek shelter in businesses that had been shut behind metal sheets to protect against looters.
The violence came as Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, said Morales would face possible legal charges for election fraud if he returned home, even as the ousted leader contended he is still president, despite resigning after massive protests against him.
Áñez said on Thursday that Morales would not be allowed to participate in upcoming presidential elections.
Morales fled Bolivia following nationwide protests over suspected vote-rigging in the 20 October election, in which he claimed to have won a fourth term in office. An Organization of American States audit of the vote found widespread irregularities.
On Thursday, Morales said in Mexico that while he had submitted his resignation, it was never accepted by Congress.
Morales said he left becausethe army chief had suggested he leave, as well as threats of violence against his close collaborators. Áñez has dismissed the explanation.
Supporters of Bolivia’s first indigenous president have been staging their own disruptive protests since he was ousted, setting up blockades that forced closure of schools and caused shortages of gasoline in the capital. Long lines formed outside some petrol stations in La Paz after blockades in the nearby city of El Alto, a major distribution point for fuel.