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US Recalls Bolivia Envoy in Security Dispute

The United States Monday recalled its ambassador from Bolivia for consultations in the wake of a violent protest outside the U.S. embassy in La Paz last week. The State Department says comments by Bolivian officials have raised questions about their commitment to protect the U.S. mission. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here say they were pleased with Bolivian police handling of the June 9 demonstration. But they say subsequent rhetoric by Bolivian officials has cast doubts on their readiness to protect the embassy in the future, and because of that U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg is returning to Washington for security consultations.

Tensions between the United States and the left-leaning government of Bolivian President Evo Morales have been on the rise amid reports that the United States has given asylum to former Bolivian Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain.

Sanchez Berzain was part of the conservative government of former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, which was driven from office in 2003 by public protests over, among other things, plans to export Bolivian natural gas to the United States via Chile.

While the State Department declines comment on asylum cases, the ousted defense chief recently told a Bolivian radio station he has been given asylum and is living in Florida. Former President Sanchez de Lozada has lived in the United States for some time.

In the June 9 protest, several thousand Bolivians - some throwing stones and firecrackers - gathered outside the U.S. embassy. When some in the crowd tried to break through a police line, they were dispersed by police using tear gas.

Announcing the ambassador's recall, Acting State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos expressed appreciation for the conduct of the Bolivian police, but said U.S. officials are troubled by subsequent comments by Bolivian officials that future protests might not be turned back.

"We are concerned by the recent statements of some Bolivian officials that cast doubt on Bolivia's commitment to fulfill its Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomatic staff and facilities in the future," said Gonzalo Gallegos. "Failure to fulfill these responsibilities would endanger both American citizens, and the hundreds of Bolivians who work in the embassy or make daily use of embassy consular and other diplomatic facilities."

Gallegos said Ambassador Goldberg's consultations will provide an opportunity to explore measures to enhance security cooperation with the Bolivian government. He gave no indication how long the envoy might remain in Washington.

An official here noted with concern that the commander of the Bolivian state police was fired last week only hours after his forces successfully fended off the move against the U.S. embassy.

The current Bolivian government accuses the exiled former president and defense minister of ordering a crackdown on anti-government protests in October 2003 in which more than 60 people were killed and hundreds injured.

Earlier this month, President Morales called on the United States to cooperate with Bolivia in the extradition of the two men, whom he accused of serious crimes. He called it unimaginable that what he termed "the worst political figures" could be protected by the U.S. government.

Former defense minister Sanchez Berzain is quoted as saying he would be subject to torture or death if he returned to Bolivia because he tried to tackle the country's illegal cocaine trade.