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Deadly clashes raise fears of civil war

At least people were killed and a dozen injured in violent clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in northeastern Bolivia, raising fears that a civil war could break out.

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SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Sept 11 (Reuters) - At least three
people were killed as violent anti-government protests mounted
in Bolivia on Thursday, creating havoc in its natural gas
industry and increasing tensions with the United States.


Armed clashes broke out between rival protesters in the
Amazon region of Pando while opponents of leftist President Evo
Morales occupied government buildings in the eastern city of
Santa Cruz, an opposition stronghold.


The government blamed the unrest on rightists who control
four of the impoverished country's nine regions, demand greater
autonomy and energy revenue and oppose Morales' plans to
rewrite the constitution and distribute land to the poor.


"What started out as a violent attack against the state is
becoming a violent internal conflict fomented by the regional
governors ... of several regions," Deputy Interior Minister
Ruben Gamarra said.


He said two of the dead were pro-Morales peasant farmers
who were "attacked with firearms" by officials from the
opposition-led local government, one of whom was also killed.
Clashes also erupted in Tarija, a region rich in natural gas.


Bolivia's Erbol radio said up to nine people may have been
killed. Five were wounded by gunshots after a militia-style
anti-Morales youth group stormed a market in a pro-Morales
neighborhood in Santa Cruz, it said.


American Airlines canceled flights to the city, an airport
official said.


'CONSPIRING'


Morales, a former coca farmer and Bolivia's first
indigenous president, has blamed U.S. Ambassador Philip
Goldberg for the escalating protests and ordered him on
Wednesday to leave the country.


"The ambassador of the United States is conspiring against
democracy and wants Bolivia to break apart," said Morales, who
has repeatedly attacked Washington since taking power in 2006.


The U.S. State Department called Morales' decision to expel
Goldberg a "grave error" and said relations were "seriously
damaged." Goldberg was still in Bolivia on Thursday, but a
spokesman in Washington said he was expected to leave soon.


Morales ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who leads a
bloc of left-wing presidents in Latin America, vowed to come to
the Bolivian president's aid if there was a coup.


"If the oligarchy, the Yankee stooges directed (and)
financed by the empire (United States), topple any government
we would have the green light to initiate whatever operation
was needed to restore power to the people," he said.


Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva phoned
Morales to encourage dialogue and a delegation from Argentina,
Brazil and Colombia was set to travel to La Paz to facilitate
talks, Brazil's Foreign Ministry said.


Bolivian Finance Minister Luis Arce said the army was
sending more troops to natural gas fields and border crossings
with Brazil after protesters vandalized pipelines and stormed a
pumping station, cutting natural gas imports to Argentina and
temporarily halving exports to Brazil.


Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and its
economy is heavily dependent on natural gas. Brazil is
Bolivia's biggest foreign investor and half of its natural gas
needs are met by Bolivian imports.


The conflict stems from a power struggle between Morales
and the governors of regions in eastern and central provinces
with vast natural gas reserves and rich farmland.


Since taking office, Morales has channeled more state
revenues and given more power to his Indian power base in
western Bolivia, accentuating a rift with the mixed race
population of the east.
  

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