La Paz, Bolivia — Bolivia's leftist government said Thursday it has begun military training for civilians at army barracks in what the opposition called a first step toward creating pro-government militias.
Weapons instruction and physical training began on Monday for hundreds at military bases in Bolivia's east, a stronghold of the pro-business opposition, and army officials said it would extend to all bases.
The program is reminiscent of one that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched in his country after a failed 2002 coup attempt that he blamed on the United States. Venezuela claims it has 120,000 participants.
Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales are close allies.
Questions about the Bolivian training arose after a television station broadcast images Thursday of young men armed with rifles taking target practice at a base in the eastern provincial capital of Santa Cruz. Also seen in the video were indigenous women in their 20s and 30s in billowing skirts and bowler hats doing calisthenics.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia, a former leftist guerrilla, said the purpose of the training is to enable civilians to assist in defending the homeland. He called participation "a citizen's duty."
Officials said there were no plans to arm civilians.
"These training activities that we have with the citizenry are for the defense of the country," Gen. Ramiro Siles, commander of the army's 8th Division, told reporters.
The division is based in Santa Cruz, the seat of opposition to what Morales calls the "re-foundation" of Bolivia — returning power its indigenous majority. That has included confiscating ranches from major landholders including an American from Montana.
The commander of the Cochabamba-based 7th Division, Gen. Hernan Ampuero, said the military training was intended for people of all social classes. But he acknowledged that many participants came from indigenous communities.
Opposition Sen. Herman Antelo demanded an explanation.
"We are asking ourselves if the goal is the create paramilitary forces in support of the government," he said.
The Morales government has repeatedly insisted that far-right extremists have conspired to try to topple it by forming armed militias, including with foreign mercenaries.
Questions still linger over the case of Eduardo Rozsa, a Bolivian-born Hungarian slain in April 2009 in Santa Cruz by an elite police unit. Authorities say Rozsa and two other men killed in the raid — an Irishman and an ethnic Hungarian from Romania — were involved in a conspiracy to create a separatist right-wing militia.
In May, a retired Bolivian general famed for capturing Ernesto "Che" Guevara was placed under house arrest in connection with the alleged plot. Prosecutors said Gen. Gary Prado exchanged "ultrasecret" encrypted e-mail with Rozsa.
Another man wanted for questioning in the case, Branko Marinkovic, is a soy magnate and opposition leader from whom the government has confiscated land. He has apparently fled the country.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this story from Bogota, Colombia.