Five people were reported killed on Sunday after Bolivia’s government sent thousands of troops backed by tanks to quell increasingly violent protests against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
Witnesses told local radio two protesters were killed during pitched battles with troops in the poor industrial suburb of El Alto, outside the La Paz. Three more were killed when soldiers cleared nearby roadblocks choking food and petrol supplies to the capital, Catholic radio station FIDES said.
Police had no immediate comment on the clashes, which take the toll to 16 dead and dozens injured during a monthlong wave of protests against Sanchez de Lozada’s free market policies and failure to tackle crushing poverty in South America’s poorest nation.
Fuel and basic foods were running short in the capital as thousands of poor Bolivian farmers and workers calling for Sanchez de Lozada to quit stopped convoys of trucks entering the Andean city with roadblocks.
“A military operation is under way to regain control of El Alto,” presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana said at a pre-dawn news conference, adding the government could decree a curfew there at any time to stop what it perceived as a coup attempt by its opponents—a charge it has made on several occasions in the past.
Witnesses said troops stood guard on the main road of El Alto, the center of recent protests against the government. Bolivia’s flagship airline temporarily suspended flights out of La Paz due to security fears, but the international airport was still operating under the guard of troops.
Sunday’s violence is the worst since February, when a government austerity drive backed by the International Monetary Fund sparked massive riots in which 32 people died. Two people were killed on Saturday and dozens more were injured as protesters fought pitched battles with police and security forces outside the capital, local media reported.
Protests by the country’s poor Indian majority against Sanchez de Lozada have spiraled in the last month amid an economic downturn in this nation of 8 million people, one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
An unpopular project to export natural gas to the United States through Chile—which has had tense diplomatic relations with Bolivia because of a border dispute—has also become a lightning rod for protests.
Hundreds of people in the north were stranded last month by Indian peasants protesting deep poverty engulfing two thirds of the mostly indigenous population in a land where most struggle to scrape by on just a couple of dollars a day.
Sanchez de Lozada, a U.S. ally in the “anti-drug war” who is widely unpopular for failing to alleviate poverty, has played down the protests and defied calls to step down.