AFP /La Paz
Bolivia’s interim leader Jeanine Anez said on Friday that exiled ex-president Evo Morales would have to “answer to justice” if he returns, as five of his supporters were killed in fierce clashes with security forces.
Morales resigned and fled to Mexico after losing the support of Bolivia’s security forces following weeks of protests over his disputed re-election that has seen 15 people killed and more than 400 wounded.
“He knows he has to answer to justice. There is electoral crime. There are many allegations of corruption in his government,” Anez told journalists in La Paz.
The former president has said he was willing to return to bring peace to Bolivia.
Five Morales supporters died on Friday outside Cochabamba in central Bolivia, a political stronghold for the ex-president, as thousands of coca growers tried to reach the city to join a protest against Anez.
But they were blocked by police, who stopped them from crossing a bridge.
An AFP correspondent saw the bodies at a hospital, though authorities did not report any deaths in the clashes, only that 100 people were detained.
Media reports said eight were wounded.
“This is a real massacre, it is a genocide, I deplore all these deaths,” Evo Morales told CNN from Mexico.
The protesters carried “weapons, guns, Molotov cocktails, homemade bazookas and explosive devices,” Cochabamba police commander Colonel Jamie Zurita said.
“They used dynamite and deadly weapons like the Mauser 765 (rifle). Neither the armed forces nor the police are equipped with such a calibre, I am worried,” he said.
The crowd was dispersed after dark by riot police, with the support of the army and a helicopter.
Despite its interim nature, the new government has proved ruthless towards Morales’s left-wing allies.
Since proclaiming herself acting president on Tuesday, Anez’s administration has set about breaking ties with socialist Cuba and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela.
Anez’s first foreign policy decision was to recognise Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s president, joining a group of around 50 countries.
Foreign Minister Karen Longaric announced on Friday that Venezuelan diplomats would be sent home for “violating diplomatic norms.”
“All the diplomatic personnel representing Maduro at Venezuela’s embassy in Bolivia will be allowed to leave the country for having interfered in internal state affairs,” said Longaric.
Bolivia also fired all its ambassadors except those to Peru and the Vatican.
It is part of a concerted effort to reverse the last 13 years of foreign policy under former union leader Morales.
The government withdrew from two regional blocs — ALBA and UNASUR — made up of left-wing allies.
Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, said Anez had her priorities wrong.
“Now is not the moment to weigh into the larger ideological battles in the region but to try to repair Bolivia’s torn political and social consensus,” said Sabatini, also a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
“Regional polarization played out on a national stage will only inflame divisions and make it more difficult to find a consensus exit to the polarised divisions in the country.”
In addition to the violence outside Cochabamba, there were smaller clashes between Morales supporters and security forces in La Paz on Friday, with protesters breaking down street barricades and fending off volleys of tear gas.
A group of mostly indigenous protesters had marched from El Alto to the seat of government in La Paz, which was protected by a police barricade.
Anez has come under fire for allegedly attacking the indigenous community in tweets that have since been deleted.
While the worst of those was found by AFP’s fact-checking service to be a fake, in another Anez refers to Morales’s Aymara community as “Satanists.” Questioned about these messages, Anez accused the Morales administration of using “digital warriors” to falsify Twitter accounts.
Anez, 52, was deputy senate speaker before taking over the top job to avoid a power vacuum — a move endorsed by the Constitutional Court.
Those further up the political hierarchy had resigned along with Morales, leaving her as the highest ranking official in the country.
Protests have flared across Bolivia since Morales was declared the winner of the October 20 election, beating his nearest rival, centrist Carlos Mesa, by just enough to avoid a second round.
The Organization of American States recommended new elections after it found “irregularities that range from serious to indicative” in virtually every area they reviewed — technology, the chain of custody of ballots, integrity of the count and statistical projections.
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