Death toll mounts in Bolivian crisis

Security forces have opened fire on supporters of former Bolivian president Evo Morales.
Security forces have opened fire on supporters of former Bolivian president Evo Morales.

A UN envoy has met with Bolivia's interim president to find a way out of the country's political crisis while the world body expressed concern the situation could "spin out of control" amid a rising death toll.

On leaving the meeting with interim leader Jeanine Anez on Saturday, envoy Jean Arnault said the United Nations hopes it can contribute to an "accelerated pacification process" leading to new elections following the resignation and exile of Evo Morales.

Meanwhile, another international body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, condemned Anez's government for issuing a decree it says "exempts from criminal responsibility" soldiers who took part in efforts to break up protests and unrest that have left at least 23 people dead.

The norm was approved before the most violent day since the crisis began, when at least eight pro-Morales coca growers were killed when security forces opened fire during a demonstration.

"It is not a licence for the Armed Forces to kill," Presidency Minister Jerjes Justiniano told a press conference. He said the decree is based on the Criminal Code, which states that "if one defends oneself in self-defence, there is no penalty".

Earlier Saturday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a statement calling the deaths "an extremely dangerous development".

"I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms," she said.

Protesters said police fired Friday when demonstrators tried to cross a military checkpoint in Sacaba, a town near Cochabamba.

Many of the protesters were coca leaf growers loyal to Morales, who had been Bolivia's first indigenous president before being pressured to step down by Bolivia's military chief after weeks of widespread protests over a disputed election.

Witnesses to the clash described seeing the bodies of several protesters and dozens of people rushed to hospitals, many covered in blood.

On Saturday, Bolivia's national Ombudsman's Office raised the death toll to eight. It said that overall 23 people had been killed in the violence.

Morales, who was granted asylum in Mexico after his November 10 resignation, said on Twitter that a "massacre" had occurred and he described the interim government led by Anez as a dictatorship.

Morales stepped down following nationwide protests over suspected vote-rigging in an October 20 election, which he claimed to have won to gain a fourth term in office.

Australian Associated Press