LA PAZ (Reuters) - The United Nations warned on Saturday violence in Bolivia could “spin out of control” following recent skirmishes between security forces and coca farmers loyal to ousted President Evo Morales that have left nine dead.
Morales resigned under pressure from Bolivia’s police and military last Sunday after evidence of vote rigging tainted his Oct. 20 election victory. He fled to Mexico two days after his resignation.
The leftist and charismatic former coca farmer has since called his ouster a right-wing “coup” and decried growing allegations of repression by security forces under interim President and former conservative lawmaker Jeanine Anez.
“The coup leaders massacre indigenous and humble people for asking for democracy,” Morales said on Twitter following reports of mounting deaths.
Anez has blamed Morales for stoking violence from abroad, and has said her government wishes to hold elections and meet with the opposition to halt protests.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned escalating violence could usurp the democratic process.
“I am concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it ... with full respect for human rights,” Bachelet said in a statement.
The violence in Bolivia adds to growing unrest in the region, including in neighbor Chile, where protests over social inequalities boiled over into riots that left at least 20 dead. Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina have also seen widespread strikes, protests and riots in recent months.
Cochabamba ombudsman Nelson Cox said hospital records in the coca farming region showed the “vast majority” of Friday´s deaths and injuries were caused by bullet wounds.
“We are working with the national ombudsman´s office to conduct autopsies ... and seek justice for these victims,” Cox told Reuters.
More than 100 people were injured in the skirmishes, the ombudsman said.
Coca farmers in some protests were also heavily-armed, police said, carrying weapons ranging from handguns and boxes of grenades to home-made bazookas made from sawed-off pipes in sometimes fierce stand-offs.
U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said a team would hold meetings with politicians and social groups beginning Sunday to end the violence and push for “free and transparent elections.”
Though the capital La Paz was largely calm Saturday, lingering highway blockades prompted panic on the streets, with many rushing to hoard groceries as supplies ran low and prices rose.
Increasing unrest and a spiraling body count prompted Morales to strike a more conciliatory tone with the government of Anez in recent days.
“For the sake of democracy ... I have no problem not taking part in new elections,” Morales told Reuters in an interview in Mexico City.
Morales’ party, now the opposition, has asked for a session of both chambers of Bolivia’s legislature this Tuesday to hash out plans for the new election.
Anez, meanwhile, has moved quickly away from Morales´ leftist rule and foreign policy.
On Friday, Bolivia asked Venezuelan officials to leave the country. The Andean nation also accused Cuba, once a close ally, of stoking unrest following Morales’ resignation.
A Cubana airlines plane arrived in Bolivia Saturday to take home hundreds of Cuban doctors.
Anez spoke with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guiado, who on Saturday called on supporters to lead a new wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist. Anez said she was pleased to establish relations with a “democratic Venezuela.”
“We have the same objectives, and I hope soon we can cry freedom for Venezuela, as it so rightly deserves,” she said in the televised meeting.
Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing and additional reporting by Dave Sherwood in Santiago; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft