Bolivian rivals see progress in talks to end violence

President Morales traveled to Chile Monday for an emergency South American leaders' summit on the crisis.

Bolivian officials and representatives of its rebellious provinces said Monday that they made major advances toward restoring peace in talks aimed at defusing a crisis over regional autonomy and the distribution of income from natural gas.

After talks with Vice President Álvaro García late Sunday, the sides agreed to wait until President Evo Morales returns from Chile, where he traveled Monday to attend a South American leaders summit on the Bolivian crisis, before hopefully signing an agreement to end violence that has left about 30 people dead.

"There were major advances and we hope that [Monday night] we can sign an accord," said Tarija Gov. Mario Cossio who, along with the governors of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Chuquisaca provinces, is demanding that Mr. Morales's leftist government return to the regions tax income from natural gas and that it stop the constitutional reform process.

Interior Minister Alfredo Rada said all 30 deaths have occurred in Pando Province, where Morales declared martial law on Friday, dispatching troops and accusing government foes of killing his supporters.

Mr. Cossio said before entering talks late Sunday that half of the country was paralyzed by 35 highway blockades. Opposition activists were reported lifting some blockades, while Morales backers were demanding that separatists first quit government offices they seized last week.

The gravest challenge to Morales in his nearly three-year-old tenure as Bolivia's first indigenous president stems from his struggle with the four lowland provinces where Bolivia's natural-gas riches are concentrated and where his government has all but lost control. Saboteurs briefly cut some natural-gas flow at midweek to Brazil, which depends on Bolivia for half its gas consumption.

The provinces are seeking greater autonomy from Morales's government and are insisting he cancel a planned referendum on a new Constitution that would help him centralize power, run for a second consecutive term, and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants. Morales says the new charter is needed to empower Bolivia's poor indigenous majority.

Morales had decreed the referendum for Dec. 7 but the National Electoral Court said he would need to have a law passed so Morales suggested Jan. 25.

Morales and his close ally President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela expelled the US ambassadors in their countries last week to protest what they called Washington's inciting of the protests.

The departing US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, has denied the accusations.

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