SACABA, Bolivia -- Bolivian security forces clashed with supporters of former President Evo Morales in a central town Friday, leaving at least five people dead, dozens more injured and escalating the challenge to the country’s interim government to restore stability.
Guadalberto Lara, director of Mexico Hospital in the town of Sacaba, told The Associated Press that most of the dead and injured had bullet wounds. Witnesses said police opened fire on protesters calling for the return of Morales from exile in Mexico.
"It's very unfortunate," Lara said, calling it the worst violence he’s seen in his 30-year career.
Thousands of largely indigenous protesters, many coca leaf growers, had gathered peacefully in Sacaba in the morning. But fighting began when many tried to cross a military checkpoint near the city of Cochabamba, where Morales’ supporters and foes have clashed for weeks.
Emeterio Colque Sánchez, a 23-year-old university student, said he saw the bodies of several protesters who had been fatally shot.
Sánchez, a protester who spoke from the site of the clashes, said about two-dozen injured people were taken to the Mexico hospital in Sacaba. Others were transferred to the Viedma hospital and local private clinics.
“I was there when the injured began to arrive and our hospital collapsed,” said Sandra Mercado, a physician at the Viedma hospital.
The families of the victims held a candlelight vigil near the place of the clashes. Angry demonstrators chanted: “Civil war, now!” A tearful woman put her hand on a wooden casket surrounded by flowers and asked: “Is this what you call democracy? Killing us like nothing? These are not numbers. These are lives.”
Another woman cried and prayed in Quechua over the coffin of Omar Calle, which was draped in the Bolivian national flag and the multicolor “Wiphala” flag that represents indigenous peoples.
Morales, who has been granted asylum in Mexico, said on Twitter that a “massacre” had occurred and he described Bolivia’s interim government as a dictatorship.
Bolivia’s Ombudsman’s Office said it regretted the death of five people during the joint police-military operation and called on the interim government to investigate if the security forces had acted within the constitution and international protocols on human rights.
“We express our alarm and concern over the result of an attempt to stop a demonstration by coca leaf growers from entering the city of Cochabamba,” it said.
The ombudsman also demanded a thorough investigation into the reason behind the deaths.
“We want to remind the current government that it has said that its transition would seek the pacification of the country,” it said. “However, today, the Bolivian people must lament five deaths, which add up to the 13 other ones already counted by this institution during this conflict.”
Presidency Minister Jerjes Justiniano told reporters in the capital of La Paz that five people had been killed and an estimated 22 were injured.
He also called on a dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict.
"What we’ve been able to determine through preliminary information is that they used military weapons,” Justiniano said, adding that in at least one of the deaths, the bullet went through the nape and then “went up and down, which means that it did not come from crossfire.”
In the capital of La Paz, riot police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators. Elderly people and children were caught in the violence and tried to seek shelter in businesses that had been shut behind metal sheets to protect against looters.
The violence came as Bolivia’s interim leader said Morales will face possible legal charges for election fraud if he returns home, even as the ousted leader contended he is still president despite resigning after massive protests against him.
Interim President Jeanine Áñez had said on Thursday that Morales would not be allowed to participate in upcoming presidential elections meant to heal the Andean nation’s political standoff.
Morales stepped down on Sunday following nationwide protests over suspected vote-rigging in an Oct. 20 election in which he claimed to have won a fourth term in office. An Organization of American States audit of the vote found widespread irregularities.
On Thursday, Morales told The Associated Press in Mexico that while he had submitted his resignation, it was never accepted by Congress.
“I can say that I’m still president,” he said.
Morales said he left because of military pressure — the army chief had “suggested” he leave — and threats of violence against his close collaborators.
Áñez dismissed the explanation.
“Evo Morales went on his own. Nobody kicked him out,” she said at a news conference.
“He knows he has accounts pending with justice. He can return but he has to answer to justice for electoral fraud,” she added. “Justice has to do its work without political pressures.”
Supporters of Bolivia’s first indigenous president have been staging their own disruptive protests since his ouster, setting up blockades that forced closure of schools and caused shortages of gasoline in the capital. Long lines formed outside some gas stations in La Paz after blockades in the nearby city of El Alto, a major distribution point for fuel.
“There’s no gas,” said Efraín Mendoza, a taxi driver from El Alto, who was forced to buy gasoline on the black market at twice the regular price on the pump.
“Products are scarce. There’s no meat, no chicken, people are making long lines. It’s all because of the blockades,” he said. “There’s division in Bolivia. It’s exasperating.”
Áñez, the highest-ranking opposition official in the Senate, proclaimed herself president, saying every person in the line of succession ahead of her —all of them Morales backers — had resigned. The country’s Constitutional Court issued a statement backing her claim that she didn’t need to be confirmed by Congress, a body controlled by Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party.
Much of the opposition to Morales sprang from his refusal to accept a referendum that would have forbidden him from running for a new term.
Morales had upended politics in this nation long ruled by light-skinned descendants of Europeans by reversing deep-rooted inequality. The economy benefited from a boom in prices of commodities and he ushered through a new constitution that created a new Congress with seats reserved for Bolivia's smaller indigenous groups while also allowing self-rule for all indigenous communities.
But many people became disenchanted by his insistence on holding on to power.
Associated Press Writers Carlos Valdez and Paola Flores in La Paz contributed to this report.