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Bolivia's Morales halts road project amid outcry over crackdown

(Xinhua)

10:28, September 29, 2011

MEXICO CITY/LA PAZ, Sept. 27 (Xinhua) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales Tuesday suspended a controversial highway project which led to collisions between police and indigenous protesters who oppose the program.

As the protests and ensuing police crackdown on Sunday evolved into a political storm with the resignations of three top officials, Morales turned to the United Nations for help in finding out the truth.

Both Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti and his deputy Marcos Farfan stepped down Tuesday amid harsh criticism over heavy-handed police response to residents of the Isiboro Secure National Park Indigenous Territory who protested the construction of a highway passing through their area in the country's remote Amazon area.

A day earlier, Defense Minister Maria Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest against Sunday's police crackdown on the protestors.

According to news reports, trying to end the 42-day demonstration, some 300 police officers fired tear gas into the crowd of about 1,000 peaceful protestors and arrested hundreds of them, while an unknown number of protestors had ended up either dead or missing. The government, however, denied these reports.

Morales, who ordered the suspension of the project pending a public referendum, said he has called on the UN to assist Bolivia in an official investigation into Sunday' s event to determine who was responsible.

"While we conduct a national and regional debate on this important matter, the construction of the Tipinis road is suspended," Morales told local reporters in the capital La Paz.

Morales, Bolivia' s first indigenous president, is a member of the Aymara tribe that protested in favor of increased sovereignty for indigenous people.

Minister of the Presidency Carlos Romero said it was Farfan who ordered the use of police force, adding that Morales had expressed "profound indignation" over the violent way in which the police handled the protestors.

"We will punish those responsible," Romero said at a press conference, adding that Farfan "should be held responsible for what happened on Sunday" and that Farfan should resign for formal investigation.

But Romero's words were contested by Llorenti, who said before his resignation that Romero was the one responsible for the crackdown while Farfan merely ordered the police to check out the situation after realizing "the operation had already begun."

Llorenti denied that Morales had any responsibility in ordering the crackdown. She made the decision to resign because "neither President Evo Morales nor myself will allow my personal image to stand in the way, (and) we are willing to make whatever sacrifice necessary," Llorenti said at a press conference later on Tuesday.

Indigenous leaders for the Tipinis movement, meanwhile, said that despite the decision by Morales to halt the project for now, the protests will continue.

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