Thousands of Bolivians protest at U.S. embassy

By Ana Maria Fabbri June 9, 2008

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of leftist president Evo Morales protested outside the U.S. Embassy in La Paz on Monday, demanding the United States send home for trial two right-wing Bolivian politicians.

The protest followed comments by former Defense Minister Carlos Sanchez Berzain, who told a local radio station last week that a U.S. court had granted him political asylum.

The protesters blame Sanchez Berzain and former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who also lives in the United States, for the deaths of 60 people and wounding of hundreds more in an army clampdown on anti-government protests in 2003.

"We want Bolivia to be free, not a Yankee colony," shouted the irate protesters, most of whom were Bolivian Indians.

Hundreds of policemen in riot gear struggled to keep rock-throwing demonstrators away from the fortress-like embassy building and ended up firing tear gas to disperse them.

Morales, a leftist, often criticizes Sanchez de Lozada for his pro-business policies when in office and for being too close to the U.S. government.

Sanchez de Lozada stepped down as president during the political upheaval of 2003 and fled to the United States 13 months into his second term as president of the poor South American country.

"The government of George Bush has decided to give refuge to the butcher Sanchez Berzain, and also I suspect to the genocidal Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ... we cannot tolerate (that)," protest leader Roberto de la Cruz told a local radio station.

The U.S. Embassy in La Paz has neither confirmed nor denied if Sanchez Berzain has been granted political asylum, saying that his immigration status is his private matter.

In September Bolivia's top court asked the government to start extradition proceedings against Sanchez de Lozada. But U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg was quoted as saying by Bolivian daily La Razon on Monday that Bolivia has not made a formal extradition request.

Like his ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales is a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, which he often describes as "imperialistic."

(Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Eric Walsh)

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