Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press
Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jan 2003


COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) -- The Bolivian government formally opened talks 
with coca farmers Sunday to end protests that have killed 12 people and 
shut down the nation's largest highway for nearly two weeks.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada said the talks would continue into the 
coming days. But he made no mention of a cease-fire or a possible 
withdrawal of the thousands of soldiers patrolling the highway and keeping 
it clear of debris.

Since Jan. 14, thousands of protesters have blocked the highway with tree 
trunks and boulders. in anger over the government's plan to eradicate 
illegal crops.

Coca is the base ingredient of cocaine, but many Bolivians chew the leaves 
or use them to brew tea. About 30,000 acres of coca can be cultivated 
legally, but growers want the limit increased.

Evo Morales, the coca leader who narrowly lost to Sanchez de Lozada in last 
year's presidential election, said the blockade will continue until the 
government agrees to a series of demands to alleviate poverty.

The demands include an immediate withdrawal of soldiers and the 
demilitarization of the coca-growing region, along with a promise that 
Bolivia's government will not sign a free trade agreement with the United 

The protests have killed 10 civilians and two soldiers. Local human rights 
groups said 100 people were injured and about 1,000 were detained by soldiers.

The government estimates the blockade has cost the nation $80 million in 
lost commerce.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom