LA PAZ (AFP) — Deadly clashes in Bolivia Thursday stoked fears of further widespread unrest and possibly even civil war, amid a furor over the expulsion of the US ambassador to the country.
At least two people were killed and a dozen people wounded in violent clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in the northeastern town of Cobija, officials said.
It was the third day of street violence in parts of the country.
Asked about the unrest President Evo Morales, opening a public works project in La Paz, said: "We are going to be patient and cautious.
"We are going to hang in there. But patience has its limits, really," Morales stressed.
The conflagration was a worsening of a months-long political standoff between Morales, who has been pushing through socialist reforms since becoming president in 2006, and conservative governors in the east opposed to his reforms.
Morales, the first indigenous president of majority-indigenous Bolivia, has sought to distribute resources more equally in the poorest country in South America.
The conflict has racial overtones as relatively prosperous regions of the eastern lowlands, where more people are of European descent and mixed-race, are keen to hold on to local resources they see as being pulled away by the impoverished indigenous highlands.
Morales's spokesman, Ivan Canelas, said Wednesday conditions opened the way to "a sort of civil war."
In Santa Cruz and Tarija, two hotspots for violence this week, with government offices ransacked, the situation was relatively calm, although precarious.
Wednesday, the central market area in Tarija saw right-wing youth groups linked to opposition governors defying Morales clashing with indigenous groups. Around 100 people were hurt.
In Santa Cruz, police overnight dispersed similar fights over control of the city's coach (bus) terminal.
In southeast Bolivia, a gas pipeline was blown up Wednesday in what the head of the state energy company YPSL, Santos Ramirez, called a "terrorist attack" by anti-government protesters.
Authorities at the private Franco-Brazilian Transierra company said supply to Brazil had been seriously affected.
On a visit to Brasilia, Bolivia's Finance Minister Luis Alberto Arce said Bolivia was facing a "civilian coup attempt" referring to the protests targeting gas exports. Natural gas is Bolivia's main saleable natural resource.
Demonstrators clashing with Morales' government on Wednesday cut off Bolivia's natural gas supply to Argentina, a Chaco company executive told AFP.
The domestic troubles were shadowed by a building diplomatic row between Bolivia and the United States, with whom Morales has an antagonistic relationship.
The US State Department reacted with fury to Morales's decision Wednesday to expel the US ambassador, who was accused of supporting the opposition groups and fomenting division in Bolivia.
"President Morales's action is a grave error that has seriously damaged the bilateral relationship," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, reading a statement.
McCormack confirmed that Ambassador Philip Goldberg had received an official message informing him that he had been declared persona non grata, adding that he will "be leaving in the near future," possibly within 72 hours.
The US spokesman would not say how the United States might retaliate, adding: "We're at the point of considering all our options regarding our relationship."
The row was playing out against a wider challenge to US influence in Latin America that is, in part, linked to Russia's ties to leftwing nations in the region.
Wednesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- also fiercely anti-US, and Morales's closest ally -- confirmed that two Russian strategic bombers had landed in his country for "training flights."
The United States also has been miffed by Nicaragua's recent decision to recognize two rebel Georgian provinces.
A visit by the US secretary of commerce to that Central American country was canceled because "circumstances have changed," US ambassador to Nicaragua Robert Callahan said Tuesday.
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