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Calm Returns to Bolivia Following Deadly Riots - 2003-02-14

Cities across Bolivia have suffered 48 hours of the worst riots and killings seen since the country's return to democracy 21 years ago. At least 26 people were killed, and dozens wounded. A tense calm was restored Friday, but President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's new government will struggle to recover its credibility.

What started last Tuesday as a strike over pay by the police, quickly degenerated into mob rule in La Paz. The ensuing chaos set the military against the police, who fought each other with tear gas and bullets outside the presidential palace.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had to be smuggled from the building in an ambulance, as angry crowds stoned the palace. Military personnel defending government buildings fired indiscriminately into the crowd.

Various public offices, including the vice presidency and Congressional library, were left undefended, and were burnt.

The arrival of tanks and armored vehicles helped restore some semblance of order in the main plaza, Thursday. But snipers placed on tall buildings appear to have been responsible for many deaths, including that of a young nurse, Ana Colque, who was tending to injured in the street.

With no police presence on the streets, mobs hunted for new targets. The sacking of public offices was combined with the looting of shops and restaurants owned by prominent politicians, including a Burger King and the Coca-Cola plant. Furniture and computer equipment were dragged onto the streets to fuel the flames, and cash machines were ripped from walls. Shopkeepers blockaded whole streets with barbed wire to try to protect their businesses.

The violence spread across the country, with government offices destroyed in most major urban centers.

Return of the police to duty following talks with the government, has meant over 100 looters have now been arrested, and a fragile calm restored. Marches and demonstrations are continuing, however.

As control is restored, and Bolivians bury their dead, the government and opposition are heatedly trying to blame each other for the tragic events of recent days. Confidence in Bolivia's politicians is reaching new lows.