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Soldiers hunt rebel governor amid violence

Latest update : 2008-09-15

Leopoldo Fernandez, governor of the northern Bolivian state of Pando, is the subject of a manhunt for rebelling against the martial law imposed by President Evo Morales. Pando has witnessed a week of deadly clashes.

Soldiers were hunting a rebel governor in Bolivia on Sunday as President Evo Morales struggled to assert his authority over opposition regions amid worsening unrest.
The troops had orders to arrest Leopoldo Fernandez, governor of the northern state of Pando, for refusing to accept martial law that Morales imposed on his territory, presidential minister Juan Ramon Quintana told reporters.
Pando has been the scene of the worst violence so far in a week of upheaval in Bolivia, with at least 16 people killed there in armed clashes between peasants supporting Morales and anti-government protesters.
Another two people, a soldier and a civilian, were killed Friday when 100 troops flew in to retake the state's principal airport in the town of Cobija from protesters, authorities said.
The five states making up the eastern half of Bolivia are defying Morales and his push for socialist reforms which would break up big ranches to give land to the indigenous poor and redistribute revenues from lucrative gas fields there. They are seeking autonomy, which the government has rejected as illegal.
The political row has been simmering since Morales, a former farmer and union leader, rose to power in 2006 as the poor South American nation's first indigenous leader.
Violence had broken out sporadically before, but the unrest being seen this time was the most brutal and sustained yet. The government has said it fears civil war.
Despite repeated calls from both sides for dialogue, Morales and the rebel governors have dug in to their respective positions.
On Saturday, Morales accused the governors of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca of "plotting a fascist, racist coup" against him. He said he would see through his reforms.
"If we don't emerge victorious, we have to die for the country and the Bolivian people," he said.
Each side has blamed the other for the spiralling violence.
Ruben Costas, the governor Santa Cruz who has emerged as the chief opponent to Morales, warned late Saturday: "If there is just one more death or person wounded, any possibility of dialogue will be broken."
The hunt for the Pando governor came after the government accused him of being responsible for the "massacre" of the 16 people, most of them peasants. The interior ministry said it suspects those killed were shot in an ambush.
Fernandez has publicly rejected the martial law imposed on his state since the early hours of Saturday. He also denied reports that he was planning to flee to neighboring Brazil.
The other rebel governors have expressed solidarity with Fernandez and denounced the martial law as an example of Morales's "dictatorial" style.
Radio Patria Nueva said the soldiers sent to Cobija were clashing with armed groups as they tried to take control of the city. Air and road access to Cobija were cut, making verification of the information impossible.
The crisis has taken on an international dimension, with the US ambassador to Bolivia due to return to Washington Sunday after being booted out of the country by Morales, who accused him of supporting the opposition.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales's main ally in Latin America, followed suit, ordering out the US ambassador in Caracas.
Washington retaliated by expelling those two countries' envoys, but the diplomatic spat was spreading to other leftwing nations in the region.
Honduras President Manuel Zelaya has refused to accept the credentials of a new US ambassador to his country, and on Saturday Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortego announced he would snub a planned Central American summit to be attended by US President George W. Bush out of solidarity.
Separately, the Union of South American Nations has called an extraordinary session for Monday in Chile to discuss the Bolivian crisis.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has voiced support for Morales, said that meeting would only be meaningful if the Bolivian government and opposition were consulted.
"If we take a decision and neither of the parties respects it, the meeting will be useless," he said.

Date created : 2008-09-14