Catholic Church calls for Bolivia talks to quell violence

La Paz (AFP) –


Bolivia's influential Catholic Church called on Monday for a "national dialogue" to end more than a month of violent protests in which 23 people have died, as interim president Jeanine Anez promised elections "very soon."

The European Union and the United Nations backed the Church's call for round-table talks between Anez's interim government and opposition parties loyal to ex-president Evo Morales.

The talks would serve "to bring peace to the country and to agree on the conditions of new presidential elections and the election of new members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal," said Bishop Aurelio Pesoa, head of the Bolivian bishops' conference.

UN special envoy Jean Arnault and an EU representative met in recent days with Anez's government and social organizations to prepare for talks.

"Very soon we will announce news regarding our main mandate: calling transparent elections," Jeanine Anez said in a speech Sunday at the presidential palace.

She did not give details, saying only that the announcement will seek the "recovery of our country's democratic credibility."

- Protests continue -

The protests that forced Morales to seek asylum in Mexico continue, primarily around the central city of Cochabamba, where the deadliest clashes erupted Friday between coca growers and both army troops and police.

Nine people died, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported, though the government has recognized only five deaths.

The government said the violent demonstrations roiling the country were slowing.

The number of trouble spots is "down by half," interim Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said.

However, rural groups close to Morales have continued to press for Anez's resignation.

Groups in the staunchly pro-Morales city of El Alto called on Monday for a "siege of the city of La Paz" to force Anez's "immediate resignation."

Roadblocks in several regions have begun to generate shortages of food and fuel in La Paz.

The government has responded by importing gasoline and diesel from neighboring Chile and Peru and sent 60 tons of meat and chicken to the city.

The violence has claimed at least 23 lives and left scores injured since late October, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Morales meanwhile has used Twitter to snipe constantly from his exile in Mexico.

"Armed Forces are not exempt from their responsibility," he said Sunday, denouncing "crimes against humanity" by the security forces against his supporters.

The ex-president has repeatedly criticized a decree by the interim government which exempts the military from criminal responsibility in responding to riots.

Although the presidential minister, Jerjes Justiniano, defended the decree over the weekend, insisting "it is not a license to kill."

Communications Minister Roxana Lizarraga said Morales "is trying to set Bolivians against each other. He is not a peacemaker. He is blackmailing us."

The unrest in Bolivia first erupted after Morales -- the country's first indigenous president -- was accused of rigging the results of the October 20 polls to gain reelection.

He resigned last Sunday and fled to Mexico after losing the support of the security forces.

Anez, the 52-year-old former deputy speaker of the Senate, declared herself the country's interim president on Tuesday, filling a vacuum left by Morales' departure and the resignations of several ministers.