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Morales and rebel governors agree to talks

Latest update : 2008-09-18

A group of rebel governors from the wealthy eastern provinces of Bolivia agreed to formal talks with President Evo Morales (photo) to try to find a solution to a political crisis that erupted in a recent wave of violent clashes.

Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales and governors who led a violent rebellion against his socialist reforms agreed on Tuesday to sign a framework for formal talks to end a deep crisis in the impoverished South American country.

Gov. Mario Cossio, of natural gas-rich Tarija province, said he would sign on behalf of a group of rebel governors, an accord that sets out the issues to be discussed. Vice President Alvaro Garcia said the central government would also sign.

The governors, all from the wealthy eastern side of the country, agreed to go ahead with talks even though one of them was arrested by the army earlier on Tuesday after Morales accused him of massacring 15 peasant farmers last week.

"If we want to return calm to the regions, let's sign this document. The government did it, the governors must too. Not signing means violence, confrontation, aggression and a greater divide between Bolivians," Vice President Garcia said.

An unstable country with large natural gas reserves, Bolivia is split between backers of Morales' plans to give land to the poor and overhaul the constitution, and a minority who say he is turning the country into another Cuba.

Eastern Bolivia erupted in violent anti-Morales protests last week, and 17 people died, including 15 in remote Pando province in the north. The government declared martial law in Pando and arrested Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez, who the attorney general said would be investigated on accusations of genocide.

During the protests anti-Morales groups ransacked and occupied dozens of government buildings, blocked highways and sabotaged natural gas pipelines, temporarily cutting off exports to neighboring Argentina and Brazil.

Bolivia's biggest source of revenue is natural gas.

"We have decided to sign this accord for peace to return," Gov. Ruben Costas of the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz told reporters.

The issues for discussion listed in the accord include the governors' drive for more autonomy for their provinces and for a larger share of state energy revenue.

A condition for the talks, which could begin Thursday if everybody signs on, is that anti-Morales protesters end occupations of government buildings.

Morales is Bolivia's first indigenous president and was confirmed by a landslide in an August recall election.

Tensions had been rising since August when Morales and the governors who oppose him were all confirmed in their posts in recall votes, empowering them to intensify their positions.

Morales' hand was strengthened when South American presidents held an emergency summit in Chile on Monday to call for an end to violent protests in Bolivia and condemn any coup attempts against him.

The army says it backs Morales, who has accused his opponents of planning a civilian coup against him.

Date created : 2008-09-17