Striking Bolivian police battle workers, campesinos in La Paz

Mutinous Bolivian police officers clashed with workers and farmers rallying in support of President Evo Morales in La Paz on Monday, after rank-and-file officers rejected an agreement their leaders made with the government over pay hikes

REUTERS - Striking police fired tear gas to keep supporters of President Evo Morales from rallying at the main square in Bolivia's capital on Monday on the fourth day of a mutiny over wages by lower-ranking police officers.

Morales, a leftist leader who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, has faced increasingly thorny social conflicts in the past year in the Andean nation, but ruled out deploying troops to end the police rebellion.

His government reached a pay agreement on Sunday with leaders of the police protest, but the officer rank and file rejected the deal demanding higher wages, local media reported.

"Unfortunately, the president hasn't resolved anything yet," one striking policeman told television reporters. "We are thinking of taking more extreme measures."

Police dressed in civilian clothes and wearing ski masks to hide their faces used tear gas to force back worker and farmers who gathered for a rally in support of Morales in the square outside the presidential palace.

"Our march was peaceful but we were dispersed with gases and sticks. The rebel police aren't fighting for salaries, this is political," the leader of the Farmers Federation, Roberto Coraite, told local radio.

Morales has accused his political opponents of being behind the violent mutiny in which dozens of police officers have been hurt and several police stations destroyed.

But he vowed to avoid a repeat of a police protest in 2003 that was quashed by the military, causing dozens of deaths.

"The president is following these events closely and maintains his decision to achieve a solution through democratic means, avoiding any bloodshed," the government's communication minister, Amanda Davila, told reporters.

Private guards

Banks reopened on Monday after closing partially on Friday, hiring private security guards in the absence of police on the streets. Other police services remained suspended in many areas.

"We're going to continue this fight. We don't want crumbs, we want our salaries to be truly in line with those of the military," said Guadalupe Cardenas, leader of an association of police officers' wives that signed the pay offer but later backtracked.

As part of the deal, the government agreed that the wages of the country's roughly 32,000 police officers should match that of other public-sector employees with a minimum monthly wage of nearly $300. It also includes improved pension benefits.

Morales often blames social protests on political rivals bent on destabilizing the natural gas-exporting South American country, which has a history of coups and violent social conflicts.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia said the wage agreement was a good first step toward resolving problems in the police force.

"The government has all the operational capacity to retake control of the police, but we hope that the good police officers can prevail, returning to their barracks to resume work," Garcia told a news conference.

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