Protesters furious at government plans to raise fuel prices in Bolivia have taken to the streets across the country, clashing with police and bringing transport to a halt.
AFP – Fifteen police officers were injured Thursday in clashes with rock-wielding protesters near La Paz, as major cities in the Andean nation were crippled by a transport strike protesting huge fuel price hikes.
"There are 15 police officers injured in El Alto, two of them seriously.... There are 16 people arrested in Cochabamba and five in El Alto," an administration official told AFP, going over police reports after a day of strikes and demonstrations.
Initial reports from El Alto said police officers came under attack by rock-wielding demonstrators and responded by lobbing tear gas.
The residential area surrounding the La Paz international airport saw thousands of protesters throwing up barricades across access roads, burning tires and hurling stones at government buildings to vent their anger.
The crowds tried to set a monument to Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara on fire, broke the doorway to the vice president's residence, torched highway toll booths and damaged offices of state-run BoA airlines and the Central Obrera union.
Earlier in the day, President Evo Morales's palace in La Paz was besieged by angry demonstrators who were also repelled by police using tear gas.
The scenes in the capital, long an electoral stronghold for the populist Morales, showed the extent of public fury at the president for lifting costly government fuel subsidies on Sunday, sending prices soaring by 83 percent.
Elsewhere in La Paz, public transport was at a near standstill as long lines formed at stores, where shelves grew emptier by the hour as residents stocked up fearing wider unrest.
The president's spokesman told AFP that despite tensions threatening to boil over in the capital of 800,000, Morales would attend Dilma Rousseff's swearing in as Brazil's first female leader as planned on Saturday.
Morales attempted to stem the growing public discontent late Wednesday by announcing a 20-percent minimum salary increase, but powerful unions and civil groups still promised further strikes, marches and disruptions.
Erecting barricades in El Alto as tires and cars burned around her, an unrepentant Patricia Coyo said the poor "suffered the most" with serious knock-on effects such as hikes in transport fares and food prices.
"We put him in power, we can also bring him down," the 30-year-old laundry worker told AFP, as protestors waved Bolivian flags and set off firecrackers.
"We have to repeal this decree of starvation by this damn government!" Coyo said.
Demonstrators muttered the word "treason" to describe Morales's actions, compared him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, his political mentor, and called for immediate elections.
Even Morales's strongest base, the coca growers union, voiced their disdain at the price hikes. Union protestors even halted truck routes by barricading a key road linking the country's center to the south.
Amid the deepening crisis, Morales ordered the military to provide people in need with basic goods such as bread and dispatched soldiers and air force personnel to run buses, trucks and planes.
Recalling that he worked as a baker in his youth, the president decried what he called unreasonable price increases for bread, noting that natural gas and electricity were exempted from the hikes.
His calls for calm went unheeded by angry mobs who set fire to offices of a toll station on the highway connecting El Alto to La Paz before being dispersed.
Truckers blocked key intersections with their rigs in Cochabamba, 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of La Paz, and Bolivia's economic capital Santa Cruz was also hard hit by a transport strike and demonstrations.
Franklin Duran, head of the Confederation of Drivers bus union, called a nationwide strike against the price hike and demanded a 100-percent fare increase.
Workers took to the streets in the Andean mining cities of Oruro and Potosi, while the head of the powerful Bolivian Labor Central union also threatened a nationwide protest.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia issued a decree on Sunday removing subsidies that keep fuel prices artificially low but cost the Bolivian government an estimated 380 million dollars per year.
The result was the sharpest fuel price increases since 1991, when prices went up 35 percent before remaining stable for six years.
The government says the price increase was necessary in part because subsidized fuel was being smuggled across Bolivia's borders to neighboring countries.
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