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Bolivians protest as crisis worsens

Thousands of Bolivians took to the streets yesterday calling for President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to resign and denouncing the government's handling of a deepening economic crisis.

A long column of peasants, farmers and unionists descended on the downtown Plaza San Francisco, shouting anti-government slogans and decrying the military's use of force during last week's riots triggered by an unpopular tax plan. "The president must resign!" and "Long live the Bolivian worker!" they chanted. Shopkeepers protected their storefronts, fearing a repeat of the looting that engulfed La Paz last Wednesday.

Last week's disturbances began when 7,000 police officers seeking a 40 per cent pay rise walked out to protest a government plan for a new tax to reduce the budget deficit, as required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for new funds.

Clashes between government troops and the strikers left 22 people dead and more than 100 injured. Looters ransacked dozens of businesses and torched at least 13 government buildings.

No violence was reported yesterday, the same day as a a nationwide general strike called by leaders of Bolivia's largest workers' union. The strike appeared to have only a limited effect as most businesses remained open.

Juan Melendez Perez, a union leader, led 3,000 demonstrators and called on the government to ignore the IMF's demand for spending cuts. "If the president wants to adhere to those policies, then he must go," he said.

Meanwhile, Sanchez de Lozada met with his top aides over ways to cut government spending. Among the proposals was a reduction in the number of Cabinet positions and a tightening of staff expenses. On Sunday, Sanchez de Lozada, 72, said he would not accept his salary for the remainder of his time in office.