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Bolivian Govt Backs Off Water Hikes

April 11, 2000

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) _ Tensions eased and thousands of protesters headed home after the government agreed to the withdrawal of an international water company whose demand for higher water prices had sparked a week of violent protests.

The protests, which have virtually shut down Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city and left six dead, prompted a security crackdown and a ``state of siege″ decree giving police and military extraordinary powers.

Protesters began disbanding Monday evening after the government agreed to reconsider an expensive water project in Cochabamba and a broadly despised new water law. Aguas del Tunari, which won a bid last year to administer the city’s water and sewage system, said Sunday it will pull out of Cochabamba because of the conflict.

``We hope that this will end this conflict that has so divided our people,″ Vice Minister of the Interior Jose Orias said at a meeting with protest organizers.

The Cochabamba protests were sparked by a 20 percent increase in city water rates needed to finance the badly needed expansion of water and sewage systems in this city at the foot of the Andes. Demonstrations quickly spread to rural areas, with peasants also protesting unemployment, rising fuel prices and other economic hardship.

On Monday, Information Minister Ronald MacLean accused drug traffickers of backing the demonstrations in an attempt to stop a government program to eradicate production of coca leaf, a raw ingredient in the production of cocaine.

``These protests are a conspiracy financed by cocaine trafficking looking for pretexts to carry out subversive activities,″ MacLean said. ``It is impossible for so many peasants to spontaneously move on their own.″

The destruction of coca leaf production has deprived thousands of peasants of their sole means of income, particularly around Cochabamba, a city of 500,000 located 350 miles east of the capital of La Paz.

Since protests began April 3, Cochabamba has been paralyzed and isolated by road blocks, marches and violent clashes between protesters and security forces. Clashes spread nationwide as the government sent thousands of army soldiers into the street to try put down the protests.

Lawmakers on Saturday suspended many constitutional guarantees, allowing police to detain protest leaders without a warrant, restrict travel and political activity, and establish a curfew.

On Monday, protesters manned roadblocks near the Andean towns of Achacachi and Batallas, where one army officer and two peasants were killed and dozens injured Sunday.

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