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Bolivian Farmers, Soldiers Clash

April 10, 2000

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ Five people were killed and dozens injured in confrontations across Bolivia as thousands of people protested again rising water rates, unemployment and other economic problems.

In Achacachi, 80 miles north of the capital La Paz, farmers blocked roads and threw rocks at soldiers who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Hundreds of the protesters then stormed government offices, destroying furniture and documents and setting fires. Some of them entered a hospital, dragged an injured army captain from his bed and killed him on the main square.

Army units also fought with Aymaran Indian farmers who formed road blocks in Batallas, another Andean town located 45 miles north of La Paz.

Three soldiers and two farmers were killed and dozens injured in the confrontations Sunday. The escalation of anti-government action that began last week reflected Bolivians’ disgust over rising water rates, unemployment and other economic difficulties plaguing this nation in the heart of South America.

The economic crisis was blamed in part on the government’s war on cocaine trafficking. A total of eight people have died in the weekend clashes.

``The conflicts reflect the poverty under which farmers are living and the fact that the government is not listening to them,″ Bishop Jesus Juaraz told The Associated Press by telephone from Achacachi, where dozens of soldiers were sent Sunday evening to strengthen the military presence.

In response to the violence, the government on Saturday declared a suspension of many constitutional guarantees, allowing the government to arrest and confine protest leaders without a warrant, impose restrictions on travel and political activity, and establish a curfew.

Police were also at the center of protests in other parts of the country, with hundreds of officers in La Paz and in Santa Cruz, the country’s second-largest city, taking over their own headquarters and jails and demanding a 50 percent increase in pay.

On Sunday in La Paz, police firing tear gas at soldiers, who fired their automatic weapons into the air. No violence was reported in Santa Cruz, but the army was called in to control the streets of that eastern city. An agreement was reached that ended the strike.

The central city of Cochabamba was quiet Sunday morning following a day of protests in which police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Thousands of protesters gathered by the afternoon, watched over by soldiers flown in from other parts of the country.

The destruction of more than half of the country’s coca leaf production has left thousands of Quechua and Aymara Indian farmers without a livelihood and depressed the economy in regions where cocaine trafficking once thrived.

Leaders of the coca farmers helped organize the protests that in Cochabamba that began a week ago.

That first wave of demonstrations began over a more than 20 percent increase in water rates in Cochabamba. The protesters demanded the suspension of a multimillion dollar contract with the foreign consortium Aguas del Tunari to increase water supplies to the city that has suffered recurrent shortages in recent years.

On Sunday the consortium _ led by the London-based International Water Limited _ said it would cancel its contract. IWL is owned by Italian utility Edison, U.S. company Bechtel Enterprise Holdings and several wealthy Bolivian partners.

The suspension of Bolivia’s constitutional guarantees called by President Hugo Banzer was the seventh time that such an emergency has been imposed since democracy returned to Bolivia in 1982. Typically, however, quiet returns within a day.

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