Police break up Bolivia funeral protest as Congress meets on elections

La Paz (AFP) –


Bolivian riot police fired tear gas on Thursday to break up a massive anti-government protest in La Paz as Congress debated when to hold new elections.

Lawmakers convened as thousands waving the multicolored indigenous flag and carrying flowers walked some nine miles (15 kilometers) from El Alto to neighboring La Paz in a funeral procession for five of the eight people killed in a stand-off with the security forces near a key fuel plant on Tuesday.

Protesters demanding "justice" and the resignation of interim president Jeanine Anez marched on the capital's San Francisco Square where scores of heavily-armed police and soldiers had blocked streets near Congress.

Screaming "murderers," protesters threw bottles of water and dirt at the security forces, who used riot shields and an armored personnel carrier equipped with a machine gun turret to stop them pushing further into the city.

Some protesters flogged an effigy of Anez in the street, dragging the figure on the ground, and tossing it at the police wearing face masks.

Police fired volleys of tear gas to break up the protesters after the angry crowd, some of them carrying the coffins, tried to force their way past security forces.

People fled, many trying to escape the gas by cowering in doorways in side streets. But police riding motorcycles pursued them, firing off more tear gas to push the protesters further away from the square.

- 'Bloodthirsty' -

Anez has urged lawmakers to lay the ground for new elections as authorities struggle to quell weeks of unrest that erupted after the disputed October 20 ballot.

At least 32 people have been killed in clashes with security forces.

Congress must fix a date for new elections, but before that it must agree on the composition of a new seven-member electoral court, after the members of the previous authority were charged with manipulating results.

Thursday's violence follows deadly clashes on Tuesday when security forces lifted a week-old blockade on the Senkata plant near El Alto, amid growing fuel and food shorages in La Paz.

"Justice, justice" chanted the protesters as they bore the simple coffins towards La Paz.

"They riddled us with bullets," said Rufino Copa, a 42-year-old farmer, describing the security force response to demonstrators as "bloodthirsty."

Protesters accuse the security forces of firing indiscriminately at the Senkata demonstrators. The interim government denies responsibility for the deaths.

"We want justice, we don't want this lady to be president," said an indigenous woman -- her eight-month-old baby strapped to her back -- who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

The killings have deepened divisions between indigenous people loyal to ex-president Evo Morales, who resigned amid allegations of electoral fraud, and Bolivia's mainly city-dwelling middle and upper classes.

Morales, who fled to Mexico after resigning on November 10, accused the Bolivian security forces of engaging in "genocide" against his indigenous supporters, and called for action by the international community.

The United States on Thursday suggested that Morales should stay out of upcoming elections, which should be "free, fair and transparent."

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

Since Morales stepped down, his supporters have demonstrated daily in the streets of La Paz and in some provincial cities to demand Anez's departure.