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Bolivian leaders warn of civil war


SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia - Departing President Carlos Mesa and other leaders warned of an impending civil war as a conservative senator prepared yesterday to become the country's next president.

Hormando Vaca Diez, who could be sworn in today, told reporters that a "bloodbath" could result if radical groups oppose his presidency. Vaca Diez is president of the Senate and next in line to be president after Mesa's resignation Monday.

Groups representing Indians, agricultural workers and unions that have laid siege to La Paz and other Bolivian cities said yesterday that they would vehemently oppose a Vaca Diez presidency because he represents the nation's "eastern oligarchy."

Vaca Diez is from the relatively affluent eastern province of Santa Cruz. Eastern leaders have grown weary of the protest movement led mostly by Aymara and Quechua Indians in western Bolivia.

The social upheaval has spread across the country. Poor farmers demanding nationalization of the country's oil reserves have seized at least seven oil wells in remote areas of Santa Cruz. In Potosi province, indigenous leaders announced that they would seize property owned by large landholders.

Vaca Diez said Tuesday that the time had come to end "the vacuum of power" and restore order after months of upheaval.

"If one faction from the many social sectors chooses to set aside these principals [of national unity] and pushes toward confrontation and a bloodbath, it will end in authoritarian government," Vaca Diez said.

Congress is scheduled to meet in Sucre today to accept the resignation of Mesa, who announced Monday night that he would step down. The Legislature is also expected to vote to ratify a new president.

Vaca Diez moved the congressional session from La Paz, the capital, saying the Legislature lacked the security "guarantees" necessary to meet there.

In a televised address Tuesday, Mesa urged Vaca Diez not to seek the presidency, saying he could provoke a civil war.

Mesa, who came to power in 2003, resigned in the face of tens of thousands of protesters who have laid siege to La Paz and other Bolivian cities.

Vaca Diez said he was confident the police and the army could restore order and would remain loyal to a new government in a country divided along ethnic and regional lines.

In La Paz, Indian and workers' leaders said they would engage in acts of "civic resistance" against police and army troops if the government tries to clear the streets.

The leftist and Indian groups want to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite Bolivia's constitution to give more power to its indigenous and impoverished majority.

Miners and activists from Chuquisaca, Potosi, Oruro and other regions said yesterday that they will march on Sucre in a bid to prevent Vaca Diez from taking power.

Evo Morales, the leftist Indian leader who has been a key figure in the opposition protests that brought down Mesa this week, said early national elections are the key to defusing the country's political and social crisis.

Morales is considered among the favorites to win a presidential election. He and other leaders of centrist and leftist parties have called on Congress to appoint the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, as a caretaker president until elections can be held.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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