LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivia’s government said Sunday that the number of people killed in a breakaway eastern province rose at least 28 and blamed an opposition governor for the violence, which prompted a state of emergency in the region.
Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said 10 more bodies were found in Pando province following Thursday’s “ambush” of supporters of President Evo Morales that has raised political tension in this Andean nation being torn apart by a secessionist movement in four provinces, which have most of Bolivia’s energy resources.
Rada earlier said 16 bodies had been found in the violence about 20 miles from Cobija, the capital of Pando. Another two people died Friday at Pando’s main airfield as government troops took control, opening fire to disperse protesters.
On Saturday, Morales accused Pando Gov. Leopoldo Fernandez of using foreign killers in what he described as a “massacre,” which led the leftist president send troops into the autonomy seeking province and suspend rights to assemble in public or carry weapons.
Bolivia’s president said he would not hesitate to extend the state of siege if necessary to the other three pro-autonomy provinces in eastern Bolivia where separatists seized government offices and natural gas fields in the gravest crisis of his nearly 3-year-old presidency.
Fernandez denied having anything to do with the violence, saying it was not an ambush but rather an armed clash between rival groups.
“The government has a great ability to distort things, and its arguments are always the same, accuse without reason,” Fernandez told Radio Fides.
As political tensions soared in South America’s poorest country, Chile called for an emergency meeting of South American leaders on Monday. The presidents of Venezuela and Brazil confirmed their attendance.
Government opponents are demanding Morales cancel a Dec. 7 referendum on a new constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants.
The Chile summit comes after both Morales and Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassadors in their countries to protest what they say is Washington’s inciting of anti-government protesters in Bolivia.
U.S. officials call the accusations baseless.
Peasant leader Antonio Moreno told The Associated Press in a phone interview that the violence began when he and several truckloads of companions came upon an opposition blockade on a jungle highway. He said there was some fighting, then suddenly a man exited a vehicle and fired on the farmers with a submachine gun.
“The campesinos fled to the mountain, while others jumped into the river,” Moreno said.
The state of siege was declared hours after Morales and opposition governors from the four provinces agreed to hold talks aimed at ending the crisis.
But the following night, opposition governors announced that dialogue would be broken off if there are any more deaths in Cobija. They said they would travel there Sunday to stand with Fernandez.