Thousands of Bolivians protest pro-US policies.

Tens of thousands of poor indigenous Bolivians marched into the capital on Thursday as their leaders rejected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's attempt to defuse a deadly revolt, declaring they would protest until the "butcher" quit.

The demonstrators filed downhill from the poor outskirts of La Paz, exploding dynamite sticks and shouting slogans such as "Goni (a nickname for the president) is a murderer." Indigenous leaders said his offer to change some of his hated U.S.-backed, free-market policies was too little, too late.

Other marchers, including old indigenous women in their traditional bowler hats and farmers wielding sticks, waved the multicolored flag of the Incas as they marched past boarded-up banks and shops in the paralyzed city center.

"The only thing the people want is this butcher's resignation," indigenous leader Felipe Quispe told local radio.

An estimated 74 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and mostly indigenous protesters furious with endemic poverty and inequality in South America's poorest country. A U.S.-led effort to eradicate coca plantations and an unpopular plan to export natural gas sparked the unrest.

Vice President Carlos Mesa appeared to distance himself further from the government, telling local TV, "I remain firm as vice president ... (but) I will not serve as an instrument for the polarization of Bolivian society."

In some parts of La Paz, police stepped in to calm restless crowds jostling for scarce supplies like bread as the blockade of the capital gradually made some basic food scarce, nearly tripling the price of eggs.

Blocks away from the protests, streets were empty except for some pedestrians and a few nervous taxi drivers who were hissed at by people on the street who were trying to bring the city to a virtual standstill.

Capital Paralysed.

"This protest is bad for all of us but Goni must go," said Sonia Mendoza, a pharmacist who said she was running short on basic medicines. She walked one hour from her house to work behind closed shutters. She had nothing for breakfast. For lunch she planned a soup, for dinner just a cup of tea.

The Permanent Assembly of Human Rights, Bolivia's main human rights group, raised the cumulative death toll estimate from 55 to 74 people on Thursday and said 198 others have been injured, the group's director, Waldo Albarracin, told Reuters.

Sanchez de Lozada late on Wednesday had stood side by side with partners from his frayed government coalition, saying "Bolivian democracy was never in such grave danger" as he made what could be a last-ditch attempt to save his job.

Sanchez de Lozada promised a referendum on the gas project, a reform of energy laws and constitutional changes. With the capital burdened by barricades, the president's proposal may find support among some sectors of a population who face increasing difficulty to feed their families.

But other Bolivians are furious at the deaths of many Indian miners and farmers shot by troops and police. Some of their children scream at the sight of armed police on motorcycles speeding through their neighbourhoods on patrol.

Protests have gathered momentum and spread throughout the country of 8 million people. Central Obrera Boliviana, a major union, said thousands of its women would go on hunger strike in Roman Catholic churches. Men would dig holes in roads across Bolivia to widen blockades that have paralyzed the economy.

[Source: Dawn, Pakistan, Reuters, 17Oct03]

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This document has been published on 17Oct03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.