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Deadly clashes strike Bolivia's east

  • Story Highlights
  • Clashes come as Bolivia's four eastern provinces seek greater autonomy
  • U.S. kicks out ambassador after Bolivia expelled U.S. diplomat
  • Bolivia accused U.S. of encouraging overthrow of president
  • Pro-autonomy supporters damaged natural gas pipeline, officials say
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SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- Eight people died Thursday of gunshot wounds in clashes between pro-autonomy militants and Bolivian government supporters in Providencia in the northeastern department of Pando, an official said.

Hugo Mopi, spokesman for the governor of Pando, near the border with Brazil, said another 30 people were wounded in the clashes.

The dead were supporters of autonomy, and included an employee from the Pando provincial government, an environmental engineer and a housewife, Mopi said.

In the southeastern province of Tarija, near the border with Argentina, 88 people were wounded in similar clashes, Tarija government officials said Thursday.

Also in Tarija, where most of the country's natural gas comes from, autonomy supporters blew up a pipeline, resulting in $8 million in losses of exports to Argentina and Brazil, the officials said. It will take 15 to 20 days to fix the pipeline, they said.

But that may not be the only pipeline interruption. Pro-autonomy groups seized control of a pipeline valve in the nearby town of Yacuiba, also in Tarija.

Local authorities and the leader of the national opposition, Jorge Quiroga, accused the federal government of organizing armed bands of militias to take control of Cobija, the capital of Pando.

Pro-autonomy groups remained in control Thursday of Santa Cruz, where work had stopped at all central government offices.

Meanwhile, American Airlines has suspended its twice-weekly flights to Santa Cruz's civilian airport.

A low-profile federal military presence was guarding strategic installations, including a refinery and a small military airfield.

Local television showed pictures of people breaking into stores, though many stores remained open.

But government supporters in the eastern provinces appear poised to strike back. Peasants who make up the base of President Evo Morales' party have threatened during the past two days to encircle Santa Cruz.

The clashes come a day after Morales ordered the expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and accused the U.S. government of encouraging the anti-government protesters and supporting his overthrow.

A State Department spokesman on Wednesday called Morales' assertion that Goldberg had encouraged anti-government protests "baseless."

On Tuesday, Morales expelled agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from the Chapare region, the third-largest coca-producing region in the world, saying the government could no longer protect them. He ordered Goldberg out, too, during a meeting that the ambassador had called to protest the DEA agents' expulsions.

On Thursday, the United States kicked out the Bolivian ambassador.

"We regret President Morales has chosen this course," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Thursday. "It will prejudice the interests of both countries, undermine the ongoing fight against drug trafficking and will have serious regional implications."

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An embassy spokesman said Thursday that the State Department plans next week to issue a report critical of Bolivia's compliance with anti-drug efforts.

Morales draws much of his support from coca growers.

Journalists Martin Arostegui in Santa Cruz and Gloria Carrasco in La Paz contributed to this report.

All About BoliviaEvo MoralesSouth America

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