(AFP) – Sep 16, 2008
LA PAZ (AFP) — Federal troops Tuesday detained a rebel governor seeking autonomy in Bolivia, as fellow anti-government provincial leaders warned that the arrest threatened a fragile truce with President Evo Morales' socialist government.
Army troops arrested Leopoldo Fernandez, governor of the restive state of Pando, and charged him in the deaths of several pro-government demonstrators who last week clashed with anti-government factions.
Fernandez, whom authorities charged with genocide, is a key player in a long-running conflict between President Evo Morales and four other rebel governors which erupted into deadly unrest, after soldiers seized control of the northern state of Pando under a martial law order.
The governors are demanding Morales drop plans to rewrite the constitution along socialist lines, abandon land reforms, and recognize their ambitions for autonomy.
Several people were killed and at least 100 wounded last week's street violence in across the country, which left at least 18 people dead, a standoff which Morales on Monday condemned as an attempted "coup d'etat."
Fernandez's arrest came one day after Bolivian leaders held a meeting with one of governors to help resolve the long-running conflict.
The leader of Santa Cruz, Carlos Dabdoub said Tuesday that his counterpart's detention amounts to a "unilateral breaking-off" of negotiations by the government, and said the move "saddened and disappointed" him and his fellow the rebel governors.
For his part, Morales at a press conference at the presidential palace Tuesday said the arrest complied with the martial law order and was "legal and constitutional."
The Bolivian leader had been expected to engage his foes in talks, after South American presidents holding a crisis summit in Chile on Monday gave him their "full and firm" support and rejected any break-up of Bolivia.
The conflict with northern state governors had been brewing since Morales, a former coca farmer and union leader, became president in 2006 and began imposing reforms to benefit the impoverished indigenous majority.
Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has been struggling to assert his authority over the eastern half of his country amid unrest backed by the governors of five states -- Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, Chuquisaca and Tarija -- which are pushing for autonomy.
Meanwhile, relations remained tense between Washington and Bolivia, as the United States announced Tuesday it was pulling US Peace Corps volunteers from the impoverished South American country, and helping US nationals to get out.
The US government on Tuesday offered to arrange to fly Americans out of Bolivia after encouraging them to leave unrest there.
"The Department of State and US Embassy La Paz wishes to inform you that one or two US government flights may be available tomorrow (Wednesday) to assist Americans who wish to depart from La Paz, Bolivia, for Lima, Peru," a statement said.
The Peace Corps, which sends American volunteers to developing countries around the globe, temporarily halted its work in Bolivia on security concerns amid rising political tensions in the impoverished South American country.
"With growing instability in Bolivia, all volunteers were consolidated on Sunday, September 14, and have now been moved to Peru where they will be transitioning out of service or to another post," the Peace Corps said in a statement.
The Corps had a total of 113 volunteers in Bolivia, working on agriculture, business development, environment, health, and youth development projects, said Amanda Beck, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.
The last time the Peace Corps pulled volunteers was when it withdrew from a program in Kenya at the beginning of 2008, following the country's disputed presidential election. The volunteers have since returned, officials said.
Staff at the Peace Corps' Bolivian headquarters in Cochabamba will monitor the situation to assess when volunteers can go back, official said.
In the midst of last weeks political crisis, Morales last week expelled Washington's ambassador in La Paz for allegedly aiding the Bolivian opposition, prompting the US government to retaliate in kind by sending Bolivia's envoy home from the United States.
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