LA PAZ, Bolivia – Riot police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters Tuesday demanding more power for Bolivia's (search) impoverished Indian majority as an offer by the president to resign failed to halt a crippling blockade in the Bolivian capital.
Police dragged miners from the yellow dump trucks in which they had converged on the city, beating some of the protesters.
No injuries were immediately reported. But army troops were seen taking up posts near the downtown Government Palace as demonstrators scattered through city streets shouting slogans against President Carlos Mesa (search).
Mesa announced his resignation only hours earlier as his 19-month-old free-market government unraveled amid swelling street protests and a crippling blockade of the capital. But demonstrators said that wasn't enough and demanded early elections.
Indians, including women in bowler hats and ruffled skirts, joined miners brandishing sticks of dynamite, coca leaf farmers, students and others who had filed into the capital from the satellite city of El Alto (search). Similar marches Monday drew more than 100,000 people and led to rolling clashes between riot police firing tear gas and violent fringe groups armed with slingshots and wooden clubs.
"Companeros, move forward!" one of the protest leaders shouted Tuesday morning as Indian, labor and leftist student groups advanced down winding mountain roads into the city of 1 million people.
Soon, dynamite blasts rumbled downtown as riot police fired back with canisters of tear gas that wafted over the demonstrators.
Tens of thousands of protesters had advanced in two major prongs on the capital, paralyzed by weeks of street blockades, food shortages and a day-old public transport strike amid the standoff between white ruling elites and protesters wanting a greater say in Bolivia's national affairs.
Mesa's resignation, if accepted by Congress, could ultimately usher in new elections, raising the prospect of Bolivia becoming the seventh Latin American country to move to a leftist government suspicious of U.S. intentions in the region.
"This is as far as I go," Mesa said in a televised address late Monday. "I have decided to present my resignation as president of the republic."
Mesa vowed to stay in office "until Congress makes a decision about the future of the country."
Mesa submitted his resignation during similar protests in March, arguing the country was becoming ungovernable, but lawmakers rejected his offer, essentially giving him a new mandate.
Lawmakers signaled they were not inclined to do the same this time, saying an emergency congressional session would be held as soon as possible to name a new leader.
The Organization of American States said Tuesday it was ready to "provide all cooperation" to Bolivia, but the group's General Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile said there were no plans to intervene in the turmoil.
The protests marked the fourth week of unrest in which protesters have erected road blockades, strangling the capital and causing gas and food shortages in this poor Andean nation of 8.5 million people.
Water supplies ran short in several La Paz neighborhoods on Tuesday as the blockade took its toll. Bread was scarce, prices rose on vegetables in Indian markets and public bus drivers in La Paz declared an indefinite strike because of gasoline shortages.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and home to an Indian majority that has helped trigger the crisis by demands for greater say in national power.
The crisis pits Indian and labor groups from the poorer western highlands, including La Paz and its poor satellite city of El Alto, against ruling blocks from Santa Cruz in the east and the oil-rich gas fields to the south that are pursuing greater autonomy.
The protests have steadily increased since Bolivia's Congress last month raised taxes on foreign oil companies that have descended on the country to develop its natural gas reserves -- the second largest in South America after Venezuela.
Lawmakers had hoped to calm tensions in a country where anti-globalization anger runs high. But the tax increase touched off fresh demands for the nationalization of the oil industry and a new constitution giving more clout to Indians, who represent about half the population.
"Our plan is to keep up the pressure," said marcher Julio Murillo, 35. "We still are demanding the nationalization of the energy sector and a constitutional assembly."
A historian-turned-politician, Mesa had no political sponsorship when he was thrust into the presidency in October 2003. He succeeded former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who resigned after street protests over plans to export the country's natural gas reserves left at least 56 people dead.
Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, who would be next in line to succeed Mesa, said he was opening urgent consultations with all parties on when and where to call an emergency session of the legislature.
Many indigenous leaders have openly declared they would repudiate a Vaca Diez presidency, or even the next-in-line, House leader Mario Cossio, both from traditional parties.
One scenario, analysts said, included the possibility the third-in-line, the popular Supreme Court President Eduardo Rodriguez, could assume the presidency to then call early elections.
A top candidate would likely be Evo Morales, the leader of poor Indians who have been pressuring one government after another for greater Indian power share. He is an admirer of populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has clashed frequently with Washington.
Morales is a main leader of Quechuan coca-leaf growers as well as Aymara Indians incorporated into his leftist MAS political party. The more radical Felipe Quispe is another key leader of the Aymara Indians, who together with the Quechuas make up 60 percent of Bolivia's population. Morales has astutely organized coca leaf farmers from the lowlands and the highlands Indians historically left powerless and poor.
Morales has been helped as several South American presidencies have gone to moderate leftists in recent elections, but his more populist style is more in keeping with Chavez and he has astutely organized coca leaf farmers from the lowlands and highland Indians historically left in poverty.
The United States had stood behind Mesa throughout the crisis, seeking to avoid another flashpoint in the region.