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Police bust Bolivia funeral protest as Congress meets on election

Allison Jackson and Hector Velasco
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A funeral procession for five supporters of Bolivia's ex-president Evo Morales, killed when security forces lifted a siege on a fuel plant

Bolivian riot police on Thursday tear gassed angry protesters who taunted them as "murderers" while parading with the coffins of five people killed in clashes with security forces, as Congress debated when to hold new elections.

Lawmakers convened as thousands waving the multicolored indigenous flag walked some nine miles (15 kilometers) from El Alto to the seat of government in La Paz, in a funeral procession for five of the eight people killed in a stand-off with security forces near a key fuel plant on Tuesday.

Demanding "justice" and the resignation of interim president Jeanine Anez, the protesters marched on San Francisco Square, where scores of heavily armed police and soldiers had blocked streets near Congress.

Screaming "murderers," the indigenous protesters threw bottles of water and dirt at the security forces, who used riot shields and an armored personnel carrier to stop them pushing further into the city.

At one stage people pushed a coffin onto the armored personnel carrier and clambered aboard, waving flags.

Some protesters flogged an effigy of Anez, dragging the figure on the ground and tossing it at police.

Police began firing tear gas to break up the protesters after the crowd used the coffins to try to force their way past security forces.

Many in the panicked crowd tried to escape the toxic gas by cowering in doorways in side streets. But police riding motorcycles pursued them, firing off more tear gas to push the protesters further away from the square.

"They want to kill us and they have the freedom to kill, there's an order for them to kill us," Ana Mendez, 55, told AFP.

"That's why they killed us in El Alto and now here they're going to kill us."

Senate President Eva Copa, a member of Morales's Movement for Socialism party, urged "the armed forces and the police to let our dead rest in peace... it's not fair that they launch this type of gas on people carrying caskets."

- 'Bloodthirsty' -

Anez has called on lawmakers to lay the ground for new elections as authorities struggle to quell weeks of unrest that erupted after the disputed October 20 ballot.

At least 32 people have been killed in clashes with security forces. Anez has issued a presidential decree granting security forces immunity from prosecution.

Congress must fix a date for new elections, but first needs to agree on a new seven-member electoral court, after members of the previous panel were charged with manipulating results.

Thursday's violence follows deadly clashes on Tuesday when security forces lifted a week-old blockade on the Senkata plant near El Alto, amid growing fuel and food shortages in La Paz.

"Justice, justice" chanted the protesters as they bore the simple coffins towards La Paz.

"They riddled us with bullets," said Rufino Copa, a 42-year-old farmer, describing the security force response as "bloodthirsty."

Protesters accuse security forces of firing indiscriminately at the Senkata demonstrators. The interim government denies the charges.

Thousands of people lined the street, cheering the protesters as they made their way towards La Paz. Women wearing flouncy "pollera" skirts cried as they punched their fists in the air.

Others tossed flower petals on the coffins.

The killings have deepened divisions between indigenous people loyal to ex-president Evo Morales, who resigned amid allegations of electoral fraud, and Bolivia's mainly city-dwelling middle and upper classes.

"I don't want conflict, I want the people to unite," Gonzalo Quispe Ticona told AFP as he stood in the back of a pickup truck next to the coffin of his elder brother, Antonio.

- 'Free, fair' elections -

Morales, who fled to Mexico after resigning on November 10, accused Bolivian security forces of engaging in "genocide" against his indigenous supporters, and called for action by the international community.

Bolivia has lodged a formal protest to Mexico over Morales' remarks, saying they "contravened" his political asylum status, the foreign ministry said.

The United States on Thursday suggested that Morales should stay out of upcoming elections, which should be "free, fair and transparent."

Anez, the 52-year-old former deputy speaker of the Senate, declared herself the country's interim president last week, filling a vacuum left by Morales' departure and the resignations of several ministers.

Since Morales stepped down, his supporters have demonstrated daily in La Paz and some provincial cities to demand Anez's departure.

But not everyone living in El Alto -- a Morales stronghold -- want him to return.

"I want elections and for the people to decide who is their president," said Gregorio Cuqui, 52, a dental prosthetist.

"I don't want Morales to return, he's already resigned and there are only a few months left of this government."