SUCRE, Bolivia – Bolivia's high court chief was sworn in as Bolivia's (search) president late Thursday after two congressional leaders refused the post, clearing the way for possible early elections that officials hope will curb violent protests.
The action came after lawmakers gathered in an emergency session following a day of violent protests and under a warning by the military of possibe intervention if the chaos isn't quelled.
Congress rapidly accepted the resignation of President Carlos Mesa (search). The rejection of the top post by the two congressional leaders automatically gave the job to Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze (search), who had been third in the line for the presidency.
The developments took only minutes during a session called after raucous street demonstrations in this historic colonial capital, some 450 miles southeast of La Paz, thwarted a similar attempt to meet earlier in the day.
The actions appeared to meet the demands of protesters who have been calling for both Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez (search) and House leader Mario Cossio (search) — the first two in the line of succession, respectively — to refuse the post in favor of Rodriguez Veltze, who had promised quick elections.
Lawmakers roundly applauded after voting by hands to accept the resignation of Mesa, whose 19-month U.S.-backed government collapsed in the face of nationwide opposition protests. Immediately afterward, both Vaca and Cossio stepped aside.
Violent protests forced Congress to suspend its session earlier to elect a new president. Earlier Thursday, the armed forces chief threatened military intervention if the rioting seriously escalated after weeks of near daily protests around the country.
The weeks-old unrest registered its first death Thursday as protests erupted in violence near Sucre earlier in the day with hundreds of miners and farmers clashing with riot police outside the whitewashed hall.
Vaca Diez later said during a televised news conference that he would reject lawmakers' efforts to name him president in hopes that that would bring an end to the spreading protests.
"I would decline irrevocably the presidency," Vaca said. He also accused opposition leader Evo Morales of sending protesters into the streets to block lawmakers from carrying out their duties.
The lawmakers had moved their session from La Paz to Sucre in a failed effort to avoid the protests that have effectively shut down La Paz.
Much of Bolivia has been paralyzed for weeks with strikes, highway blockades and oil field takeovers that forced the last president to offer his resignation Monday.
The clashes in Sucre eventually subsided as scores of riot police threw up cordons around downtown Sucre and kept protesters behind the barricades.
The head of the armed forces, Naval Adm. Luis Aranda Granados (search), warned both sides to avoid violence, and said the military was prepared to safeguard democracy.
"As long as there is no break in the constitutional and democratic system, we will continue to safeguard this entire process," Aranda Granados said.
He urged lawmakers to respect the "will of the people."
The demonstrations and road blockades have spread to many cities in the stricken Andean nation of 8.5 million people, as an eclectic opposition coalition of highland Indians, labor activists, leftist students and coca-leaf farmers has crippled South America's poorest country.
The restive opposition is clamoring for broad changes that would give more political power to the poor majority, nationalize the oil industry and move away from U.S.-backed free-market policies.
"We will win! We will triumph!" a column of club-wielding peasants from the coca-growing lowlands chanted as they snaked through cobblestone streets in La Paz on Thursday.
Other columns followed the farmers: disgruntled miners in hardhats, ill-paid teachers and Indian women from the teeming hillside slums of nearby El Alto in black bowler hats with babies on their backs.
Segundo Oviedo, a 45-year-old farmer from Cochabamba wearing a tattered farm cap, said the poor were fed up after decades of rule by members of the country's elite failed to improve their lot.
"What we are demanding is wholesale reform in Bolivia," he said.
The miners' leader was killed as his group made its way to the Sucre protests. The miners said he was shot as their truck caravan approached soldiers on a highway. Government minister Saul Lara confirmed the death but said the circumstances were under investigation.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he would send Jose Antonio Ocampo, undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs, as his personal envoy to Bolivia. The timing of the trip depended on "developments in the country," he said.
"Bolivians should resolve their differences peacefully and democratically," Annan said.
The crisis has reverberated from the high mountain plains of La Paz to the tropical lowlands. Activists have seized several oil field installations, crippling the national economy. La Paz has run short on gasoline and food as the city of 1 million idled under a public transportation strike.
Strapped hospitals are sending non-critical patients home, mountains of trash are accumulating uncollected, inmates at one prison near La Paz were reportedly running short on food and hundreds of people lined up for scarce bread and cooking gas.
Hungry peasants looted an outdoor market in La Paz on Thursday, carting away sacks of potatoes and other vegetables.
Leftist opposition leader Evo Morales lashed out at Vaca Diez, saying he was a wealthy landowner and part of the "mafia of the oligarchy" that has ruled Bolivia for decades. He warned against attempts by the military to break up highway blockades.
"Vaca Diez, do not destroy our country!" Morales said in a radio address Thursday.
Vaca Diez refused to say Thursday whether he intended to serve out Mesa's term, which ends in August 2007.
"I hope that all goes well and that peace can be restored in Bolivia," he said.