Striking police return to work

Friday, February 14, 2003

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Striking police officers returned to work Thursday after two days of violent street protests that left 22 people dead and a trail of burned and looted buildings throughout the capital of South America's poorest nation.

People lined the streets of La Paz to cheer police officers as they began to restore order after demonstrators set fire to government buildings and looted stores in a wave of violence that began as a protest against a new income tax that the government suspended to calm the unrest.

Over the two days, 22 people were killed, including at least nine police officers, and 102 were injured, according to Eduardo Chavez, director of La Paz's General Hospital, where most of the casualties were treated.

Earlier Thursday, sirens wailed and bands of looters ran through chaotic central La Paz, where tanks and 400 heavily armed soldiers were deployed near the presidential palace, which was besieged by protesters a day earlier.

Several thousand protesters marched through downtown, shouting slogans against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. "Resign or die, those are your options," they chanted. The march, organized by labor groups, ended without violence.

In a nationally televised speech Thursday night, Sanchez de Lozada called on Bolivians to resolve their problems through dialogue and he expressed condolences to the families of the dead.

"Democracy is not perfect, God knows it is not," he said. "Hopefully together we can find solutions to our grave problems, but we'll never find them through violence, looting and destruction."

Also on Thursday, the president sent a delegation of three ministers to Washington to seek financial aid from the International Monetary Fund to aid in a jobs development program.

Earlier in the day, troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at groups of looters breaking into shops and buildings. Five people were injured by rubber bullets, the Red Cross said.

Looters scoured the Ministry of Sustainable Development, one of a dozen government buildings torched Wednesday. The thieves threw chairs and papers out the windows while a crowd of 300 people cheered them outside.

"There were great things inside, computers, radios, but they beat me to it," said one looter, holding a metal trophy he'd managed to snatch.

La Paz fell into chaos Wednesday after most of the city's 7,000 police walked off their posts and led protests that degenerated into the violent riots.

After talks with the government, the police slowly trickled out of their barracks and resumed patrols.

In a metropolitan area of about 1.5 million, public transportation came to a halt and shop owners covered windows with plywood and metal.

Police officers spent most of Thursday with family members, attending wakes and funeral services for nine officers who died in Wednesday's clashes with soldiers.

Also among the dead was a Red Cross nurse who was shot and killed as she attempted to load an injured demonstrator into an ambulance.

As police worked to restore order in La Paz, disturbances erupted in other parts of the country, where officers had also left their posts.

In Cochabamba, 155 miles southeast of La Paz, rioters set fires in the street and shut down public transportation throughout the city.

On Sunday, the president announced an income tax to help reduce the government's deficit, from 8.5 percent of the budget to the 5.5 percent required under an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

Previously, the government depended on a value-added tax paid on goods and services. However, the system allowed widespread tax fraud by Bolivians who submitted fake invoices to win exemptions.

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