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Catholic Church in Bolivia seeks talks to quell violence

Raul BURGOA
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A supporter of Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales holds a Wiphala flag -- representing indigenous peoples -- in La Paz

A supporter of Bolivian ex-President Evo Morales holds a Wiphala flag -- representing indigenous peoples -- in La Paz (AFP Photo/AIZAR RALDES)

La Paz (AFP) - Thousands of supporters of Bolivia's ex-president Evo Morales flocked onto the streets of La Paz on Monday to demand the resignation of his interim replacement, as the influential Catholic Church called for a national dialogue to end more than a month of violent protests in which 23 people have died.

Several thousand indigenous supporters of Morales marched peacefully through the city, calling on interim leader Jeanine Anez, who assumed office last week in what Morales claimed was a coup, to resign.

"Respect life! No to bullets!" read one banner held up by marchers, a reference to the killing of nine coca farmers by security forces in Cochabamba Friday, the deadliest clash of the month-long protests.

"Our sons are dying and we are demanding that justice be done," said Angelina Charka, dressed in a traditional "pollera" skirt, told AFP.

Bishop Aurelio Pessoa, head of the Bolivian bishops' conference, called for a national dialogue involving all parties "to bring peace to the country and to agree on the conditions of new presidential elections and the election of new members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal."

The European Union and the United Nations backed the Church's call for round-table talks between Anez's interim government and opposition parties loyal to Morales.

UN special envoy Jean Arnault and an EU representative met in recent days with Anez's government and social organizations to prepare for talks.

Anez on Sunday said "transparent elections" would be held "very soon" but she has held off on announcing a date until a new election authority is put in place, for which she needs to agreement of Morales' majority Movement for Socialism party, MAS.

- Protests continue -

The protests that forced Morales to seek asylum in Mexico have continued, primarily around the central city of Cochabamba.

Nine people died in Friday's incident, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported, though the government has recognized only five deaths.

The government said the violent demonstrations roiling the country were slowing.

The number of trouble spots is "down by half," interim Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said.

However, rural groups close to Morales have continued to press for Anez's resignation.

Groups in the staunchly pro-Morales city of El Alto called on Monday for a "siege of the city of La Paz" to force Anez's "immediate resignation."

Roadblocks in several regions have begun to cause shortages of food and fuel in La Paz.

The government has responded by importing gasoline and diesel from neighboring Chile and Peru and sent 60 tons of meat and chicken to the city.

The violence has claimed at least 23 lives and left scores injured since late October, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Morales meanwhile has used Twitter to snipe constantly from exile in Mexico.

"Armed Forces are not exempt from their responsibility," he said Sunday, denouncing "crimes against humanity" by the security forces against his supporters.

The ex-president has repeatedly criticized a decree by the interim government which exempts the military from criminal responsibility in responding to riots.

Although the presidential minister, Jerjes Justiniano, defended the decree over the weekend, insisting "it is not a license to kill."

Communications Minister Roxana Lizarraga said Morales "is trying to set Bolivians against each other. He is not a peacemaker. He is blackmailing us."

The unrest in Bolivia first erupted after Morales -- the country's first indigenous president -- was accused of rigging the results of the October 20 polls to gain reelection.

He resigned last Sunday and fled to Mexico after losing the support of the security forces.

Anez, the 52-year-old former deputy speaker of the Senate, declared herself the country's interim president on Tuesday, filling a vacuum left by Morales' departure and the resignations of several ministers.