Bolivian police protests leave two dead, 24 injured

Thursday, February 13, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Striking police officers in the Bolivian capital led violent street demonstrations Wednesday that left at least two people dead and 24 injured in clashes between protesters and government troops.

Government troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the striking police officers and civilian demonstrators, who stormed the presidential palace to protest government proposals to raise taxes and cut spending on social programs.

As smoke from fires swirled through La Paz's historic center, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada gave a nationally televised speech appealing for calm and announcing he would suspend the tax increases.

"I plead with all Bolivians to put an end to the violence and to begin honest negotiations," Sanchez de Lozada said. "I ask one more thing from our father above -- God save Bolivia."

A spokesman from the capital's main public hospital confirmed two dead and 24 injured and appealed to the public to donate blood. It was unclear if the casualties were civilians, police or soldiers.

"The citizens here are full of fear," said Fernando Solis, a businessman who was trapped by the protests inside the Paris Hotel in the city's historic center.

The mutiny began Tuesday night when officers in four precincts refused to begin patrols and demanded a 40 percent pay increase.

By morning, nearly all police in La Paz and the surrounding area had left their posts despite talks with government officials to avert the strike.

Street protests began Monday after Sanchez de Lozada, struggling to lift Bolivia out of a five-year recession, approved tax hikes that would reduce the buying power of South America's poorest nation.

Labor unions, business interests and others came out against the tax increases, but it was the police revolt that appeared to spark the violent street clashes with government troops.

Tear gas fired

Police officers, dressed in green fatigues, seized the foreign ministry, firing tear gas in support of the demonstrators who laid siege to the presidential palace across the square.

All shops were closed within at least 12 blocks of the historic center as smoke from tear gas and burning tires, wood and other debris filled the air.

"I'll continue fighting until the government is deposed," said Juan de Dios, a 17-year-old high school student who joined a mob attacking the presidential palace.

Television reports said human rights representatives were attempting to mediate between the police and the government.

"We're living a total chaos," said Sonia Rocha, a restaurant owner. "The government should really have thought before announcing these new taxes. We're just too poor to pay them."

Wilma Plata, head of La Paz's Teachers union, said some 20,000 public school teachers would join the police in a general protest Thursday.

"The government has created this crisis, and expects the nation's workers to shoulder the burden," she said. "The government is destroying us."

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