Bolivia's Morales defiant after protests kill three

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LA PAZ, Nov 26 (Reuters) Bolivian President Evo Morales lashed out at his rightist opponents today after violent protests against his constitutional reform plans killed three people in one of the worst crises to hit his government.

Violence exploded on the streets of the southern city of Sucre over the weekend after Morales' leftist allies pushed through a draft of a new constitution under military guard.

Morales has made rewriting the constitution a pillar of his reform agenda, but the issue has deepened Bolivia's ethnic and regional divisions.

More protests were planned for today in opposition strongholds such as the economic powerhouse of Santa Cruz, where anti-Morales protesters have occupied state buildings and called for mass civil disobedience.

''Occupying state offices isn't democracy, civil disobedience isn't democracy, and we hope the Bolivian people ... identify these traitors, the people who are against the nation and want to damage this process of change,'' Morales said as he led a march of union leaders and pensioners pressing the opposition-controlled Senate to pass a state pension bill.

Three people were killed in the weekend's unrest in Sucre, in which demonstrators torched police stations and stormed a jail, freeing 100 inmates. One of the dead was a policeman lynched by mobs of protesters. The other victims were civilians and were apparently shot dead.

Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, took office as Bolivia's first indigenous president in January 2006, vowing to increase state control over the economy and empower the poor, Indian majority.

POLARIZED COUNTRY One of the former coca farmer's first measures was to nationalize the natural gas industry, and the draft constitution seeks to give more autonomy to indigenous groups.

Morales' leftist agenda has angered opponents and protests have raged for days against the assembly.

No fresh violence was reported on Monday in Sucre, and officials were studying an emergency plan to restore order to the city, which lies 435 miles (700 km) south of La Paz.

Rightist opposition leader Jorge Quiroga called on foreign governments to send monitors to Bolivia and warned Morales not to follow ''the bad example of Chavez''.

''If the international community is concerned about democracy and the rule of law, it should have observation missions to pacify and evaluate what's happening,'' state news agency ABI quoted Quiroga as saying.

Morales is an Aymara Indian who hails from the poorer Andean west, while his conservative rivals are concentrated in the richer east and especially in the city of Santa Cruz.

His opponents say he is only governing for his Aymara and Quechua power base and many want more autonomy for the regions they govern. They also want to move the seat of government and Congress to Sucre from highland La Paz, a bastion of Morales support.

The draft constitution, which keeps the seat of government in La Paz, was approved mainly with votes from Morales' party as most opposition representatives boycotted the debates to protest moving the assembly to an army compound. The draft must still go to a referendum before it can take effect.

Bolivia is South America's top natural gas exporter but it is also one of the region's most unstable countries and violent uprisings toppled governments in 2003 and 2005.

Reuters AK VP0105

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