LA PAZ (AFP) — President Evo Morales of Bolivia on Wednesday ordered the US ambassador expelled, accusing him of contributing to divisions in the country which the government warned was headed towards "civil war."
Ambassador Philip Goldberg was to be sent an official message from the foreign ministry "informing him of the decision by the national government and its president that he should return to his country at once" and that he was "persona non grata," Morales said.
The move came amid violence in several regions that Morales's spokesman, Ivan Canelas, said were creating conditions for "a sort of civil war."
Anti-government protesters on Tuesday ransacked government offices, and seized oil facilities and three regional airports.
In southeast Bolivia, a gas pipeline was blown up Wednesday in what head of the state energy company YPSL, Santos Ramirez, said was a "terrorist attack" by anti-government protesters.
The explosion occurred in Yacuiba, near the border with Argentina, causing a cut in natural gas supplies to that country and to Brazil.
The unrest was a worsening of a political conflict between Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, and rebel governors in five of the country's nine states.
The conservative governors are opposing Morales's bid to reform the country along socialist lines designed to benefit the indigenous majority, and are encouraging the protesters in their actions.
They have also made moves towards autonomy, something Morales has branded as illegal. Two weeks ago, he ordered troops to guard gas facilities and government offices in their eastern lowland territories.
In his speech Wednesday, the president accused the US ambassador of aiding his opponents.
Last month, his foreign ministry protested a high-profile meeting Goldberg held with the governor of Santa Cruz state, Ruben Costas, Morales's chief foe.
The government also noted this week that the head of the Santa Cruz employers' federation, Costas's ally Branko Marinkovic, had just returned from the United States.
In Washington, the US State Department said it had not received a formal order from Bolivia to withdraw its ambassador. A spokesman, Gordon Duguid, said Morales's charges against Goldberg were "baseless."
Bolivia, South America's poorest nation, has been in the grip of the contest between Morales and the rebel governors for months, but the risk of widespread violence had up to now been tempered by political moves by both sides.
Last month, a referendum called by Morales delivered a strong confirmation of his leftist mandate, with two-thirds of voters backing him. But in the rebel states, voters also returned most of the governors forming the opposition coalition.
After failed negotiations to find a compromise solution, Morales announced two weeks ago a new referendum, for December 7, to vote on his rewritten constitution, which would redistribute land and national revenues to give more to the indigenous population.
The opposition coalition, which also includes town mayors, have focused their attention on the main source of Bolivia's income: the natural gas fields that lie in their eastern half of the country.
Militants linked to the opposition group set up road blocks to add pressure to the governors' demands for more control over gas revenues. On Wednesday, pro-Morales supporters did the same, cutting roads from the capital La Paz to Santa Cruz.
The situation has created a divided Bolivia, one riven by ethnic confrontation between the indigenous community and the population in the more prosperous east which is largely of European and mixed descent.
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