October 13, 2003

Bolivian leader refuses to resign

Unpopular gas exports suspended after violent protests

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) --Bolivia's president shelved plans on Monday for natural gas
exports that have provoked massive, violent protests, but rejected mounting demands for
his resignation.

As thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of La Paz chanting
anti-government slogans and demanding that he resign, President Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada vowed "to defeat the sedition and restore order."

He called the massive protests in recent weeks against the gas export plan "a
plot encouraged from abroad aimed at destroying Bolivia and stain our
democracy with blood." At least 16 people have died in the demonstrations.

He dismissed the demands for his resignation, saying "My government is the
result of a popular election" and that it has the support of the armed forces and
the police.

He accused Congressmen Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, the Indian leaders
of the protests, of promoting the alleged plot, but at the same time offered to
negotiate a solution to the crisis with them and "with all sectors."

Quispe and Morales quickly rejected the offer and insisted that the president
must go.

Sanchez de Lozada addressed the nation on radio and television after meeting
with top advisers and military leaders, amid indications that his government was
weakening. His five-year term ends in 2007.

Vice President Carlos Mesa said he was withdrawing his support from the
president "because I cannot continue to support the situation we are living."
However, he said he would not resign.

For his part, Development Minister Jorge Torres quit his post citing
"insurmountable differences" with the president.

Both Mesa and Torres criticized the military crackdown Sunday night in the
neighboring city of El Alto that left at least five demonstrators dead. Human
rights groups said the number of victims might be closer to 20.

Road blockades

As the president spoke, marches and sporadic clashes continued in La Paz.
Witnesses said demonstrators threw rocks at the residence of former President
Jaime Paz Zamora, a close associate of Sanchez de Lozada. No one was
injured and Paz Zamora was not home during the attack.

Radio stations kept urging police and soldiers to use restraint. "Do not shoot.
Let's stop the killing among Bolivians," the announcers repeated.

Road blockades, a traditional means of protest in Bolivia, were reported in
several areas in the country.

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria,
issued a statement Monday saying: "The forces behind these events, which have
already cost many lives, should know that the 34 states in the hemisphere
covered by the Inter-American Democratic Charter unanimously condemn the
use of violence and force to alter the constitutional order.

"Any government that arises anti-democratically is absolutely unacceptable in
the Americas," the OAS statement said.

The government had estimated that revenues from gas exports to the United
States and Mexico would bring about US$1.5 billion a year to Bolivia, one of
South America's poorest nations.

But union leaders and the nation's poor Indian majority, which has frequently
led protests against government attempts to privatize the country's state
industries, argue the economic benefits will not reach them.

No gas exports

In a news conference earlier Monday, Sanchez de Lozada announced the
cancellation of the gas project.

"There will be no gas exports to new markets," he said.

He announced he would instead promote a "national dialogue," in which his
government will gather opinions from all sectors in the country. The process will
last through December 31.

But protest leaders said shelving the project would not stop the demonstrations.

"We will not stop until he (the president) goes away," Roberto de la Cruz, a
union leader in El Alto, said Monday.

The plan called for exporting gas from Bolivia's mammoth reserves in the
southern region of Tarija to the United States and Mexico.

Opponents are especially upset that the government might pick a port in Chile
to ship the gas. Bolivia has been a landlocked nation since it lost its coastline in
an 1879 war against Chile, and resentment against its neighbor is still strong.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.