Anti-government protesters in Bolivia lift road blockades ahead of talks with interim president

EL ALTO/LA PAZ (Reuters) – Anti-government demonstrators in Bolivia lifted road blockades ahead of talks with interim President Jeanine Anez on Saturday aimed at ending weeks of unrest, as Congress moved toward passing a bill to pave the way for new elections.

People line up to get a gas cylinder near petrol plant of Senkata, that normalizes fuel distribution in El Alto outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, November 23, 2019. REUTERS/David Mercado

The developments have brought Bolivia the closest it has come yet to a breakthrough during violent protests that have convulsed the landlocked South American country since its contested Oct. 20 election.

More than 30 people have died in clashes, most following the resignation of President Evo Morales, who agreed to step down under pressure from security forces and protesters amid allegations he rigged the vote to give him an outright win.

Morales, an iconic socialist leader in Latin America who had been in power for nearly 14 years, has said he was toppled in a coup and has relocated to Mexico, which has granted him asylum.

But lawmakers in his Movement to Socialism (MAS) party have reached a deal with other parties to pass legislation needed to appoint a new electoral board to call new elections. The bill they hashed out would annul the Oct. 20 election and was passed by the Senate unanimously on Saturday. The lower chamber was expected to pass it later in the day.

In the highland city of El Alto near the seat of government in La Paz, road access to a natural gas plant that has been a focal point of protesters resumed early on Saturday, with vans packed with commuters dodging boulders, burned tires and other debris still scattered on streets.

Local media reported that road blockades in other regions had also been lifted as part of a pause in demonstrations.

El Alto residents waited in a long line in drizzling rain to refill their natural gas tanks outside the plant, Senkata, where eight people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters on Tuesday.

“We’ve been cooking with wood in the patio,” said El Alto resident Miriam Gonzalez, 44, as she lined up with family members, adding they had been in line for three hours.

But some El Alto residents said the blockade at Senkata might resume depending on how talks with the government go, and local media reported that fresh clashes between protesters and security forces erupted on Saturday in the region of Cochabamba, a stronghold of support for Morales.

Anez is scheduled to meet late Saturday afternoon with protest leaders from El Alto and other parts of Bolivia where road blockades have choked off food and fuel to cities.

“They’ve guaranteed to us that all social sectors will be present so we can once and for all reach deals to pacify the country,” Public Works Minister Yerko Nunez told journalists late on Friday.

It was unclear what protest leaders would demand from Anez.

In recent days, protesters have marched to demand justice for people killed in clashes and the repeal of a law Anez’ government passed that gave the military broad discretion in the use of force to restore order. Some have also pushed for Morales to return to Bolivia to carry out the rest of his term.

Morales’ children left the country early on Saturday with instructions from Anez that they be provided safe passage, interim interior minister Arturo Murillo wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of boarding passes that showed them heading to Buenos Aires.

Reporting By Mitra Taj in El Alto and Daniel Ramos in La Paz; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Chizu Nomiyama

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