Deadly Clashes in Bolivia Highlight Tension Over President Morales

Supporters of President Evo Morales took to the streets again Friday protesting a Bolivian state governor's call for more local autonomy, a day after clashes between 30,000 protesters from rival gangs left two dead and at least 130 injured.

The protests demanding the resignation of Cochabamba state Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa began a month ago and are part of a larger power struggle between Morales and the country's opposition-controlled state governments.

On Friday, demonstrators armed with sticks and shouting slogans marched to the center of Cochabamba, 125 miles southeast of La Paz. They denounced Reyes' support of a movement to give Bolivia's states greater power, as well as the governor's criticism of Morales' attempts to control an assembly rewriting the country's constitution.

Morales, speaking Friday after returning from the inauguration of fellow leftist President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, blamed Reyes for provoking the protests but called on demonstrators to refrain from further violence.

"We all want unity and integrity, and the governor of Cochabamba's support for independence has caused a reaction in patriotic people from both the city and the countryside," he said.

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On Thursday several thousand demonstrators from factions for and against the governor fought with sticks, rocks, baseball bats and machetes in Cochabamba's picturesque plazas, images that were broadcast on national television. Three demonstrators were arrested for carrying handguns, according to government authorities.

Authorities said 1,500 soldiers had been dispatched to the city to restore order, but only small groups of troops were visible Friday on bridges in the center of town where Thursday's fighting occurred.

Cochabamba medical authorities said that the number of people injured in the clashes — mostly from sticks and rocks, but also from gunshots — had risen to 130.

The battle took place on a day when Reyes, a former presidential candidate widely considered to still harbor national ambitions, had traveled to the Bolivian capital La Paz to meet with four other governors on a political strategy opposing Morales.

Reyes' criticisms of Morales have not been popular in Cochabamba, the president's home state. Thousands of coca growers — many members of Bolivia's largest coca growers' union, of which Morales still serves as president — have gone to the capital from the countryside to call for his resignation.

Reyes has repeatedly rejected his opponents' calls for his resignation.

Morales' efforts to expand his executive power have incensed the opposition governors who head six of nine Bolivian states, many of which have long sought greater autonomy from the central government.

Tensions between Morales and opposition governors have heightened in recent weeks, with Morales proposing to sending deputies from La Paz to monitor the state governments' activities. Opposition governors immediately threatened to send their own delegations to keep a closer eye on Morales.

Reyes has called for Cochabamba to hold a second vote on a referendum giving the states greater power.

The referendum was defeated in a nationwide election in July, with 63 percent of Cochabamba voters opposed to autonomy.

Reyes blamed Morales for not reacting more forcefully to protests earlier in the week.

"Cochabamba has paid for the irresponsibility of the Bolivian government, which could have resolved this but waited for tragedy," the governor said late Thursday.

Hundreds of pro-Morales protesters surrounded the La Paz hotel Thursday night where the governors were meeting.

In a televised message Thursday night, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera confirmed two deaths in the unrest, an opposition protester and a government supporter.

The vice president said Reyes abandoned his state during a crisis.

"He left Cochabamba despite the severity of the conflict and came to La Paz to play politics, to conspire against the government, to prepare more demonstrations," Garcia Linera said.