Tensions mount in Bolivia as elite police units join protests

La Paz (AFP) –


Bolivia was in a state of high tension Saturday as the ruling party urged supporters to occupy the streets of La Paz to defend the re-election of President Evo Morales, a day after police in three cities joined anti-government protests.

Morales called Saturday for urgent, open-ended dialogue with opposition parties holding seats in the National Assembly, but he pointedly excluded the powerful regional civic committees opposing him.

An opposition leader, former president Carlos Mesa, immediately rejected Morales's gesture, saying, "We have nothing to negotiate with Evo Morales and his government."

The offer was also rejected by Ruben Costas, the powerful governor of the eastern state of Santa Cruz.

The police rebellion erupted Friday among the elite tactical operations unit known as UTOP in the central city of Cochabamba. It then spread to units in Sucre, the constitutional capital, and Santa Cruz, a bastion of opposition strength in the east.

During the night the rebellion reached other cities but mostly spared La Paz, the country's administrative capital, local media reported.

But in a worrying sign for the Morales government, the UTOP officers in La Paz who for weeks have closely guarded the central Plaza Murillo -- where the presidential palace is located -- withdrew to their quarters Saturday in evident solidarity with the protests, an AFP reporter observed.

The sector remained guarded only by a small number of officers.

The police actions erupted amid deadly unrest that has gripped the South American country since Morales was named winner of the October 20 election for a fourth term.

Opposition groups have branded the result a fraud and demanded Morales's resignation. Three people have died so far and hundreds injured in the unrest.

The leftist president, Bolivia's first from the indigenous population, assailed the police action. He said Friday on Twitter that "our democracy is at risk from a coup d'etat launched by violent groups undermining the constitutional order."

Opposition leaders urged the military to follow in the footsteps of the rebellious police.

Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta said there was no plan to send troops to subdue the police.

- A call to 'defend' Morales -

The governing Movement for Socialism called on party supporters to come to La Paz to "defend" the results of the vote that kept Morales in power for an unprecedented fourth term.

Buses carrying opposition activists to La Paz came under attack Saturday by Morales supporters in rural Vila Vila, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of La Paz, an opposition leader, Rodrigo Echalar, said on television.

Up to now, the streets of La Paz have mainly been occupied by anti-government protesters, but on Friday night some of them marched side-by-side with the policemen who had earlier put down their protests.

An AFP reporter witnessed dozens of police marching alongside opposition activists in central La Paz, shouting anti-Morales slogans.

- Calls to the troops -

Mesa, who came in second in the October 20 election, joined former presidents Jaime Paz Zamora and Jorge Quiroga in urging the military not to put down the protests.

Quiroga reminded the troops that five former military chiefs remain in prison over the deaths in 2003 of anti-government protesters.

In La Paz, dozens of protesters marched to the Military College to urge the troops to join the push for Morales's resignation.

In some neighborhoods, people celebrated the police rebellion as if Bolivia had won an important soccer match.

Morales has insisted that the October elections were fair and transparent.

The Organization of American States is auditing the results.