EL ALTO, Bolivia (Reuters) — Six local government workers died of asphyxiation in the Bolivian city of El Alto after a group of protesters occupied and set fire to the municipal offices on Wednesday (February 17), El Alto’s local government said.
The municipal government of El Alto – a fast-growing satellite city of La Paz – said in a statement that six of its workers had died after the violent occupation of their offices by protesters with links to Morales’ socialist party. El Alto is governed by the opposition.
The violent scenes were captured by a local television crew. Footage shows the protesters trying to stop cameramen from filming angry demonstrators from breaking through the doors of the municipal office.
Mobile phone footage taken in the the building shows protesters burning official documents reportedly used to investigate alleged corruption cases.
The fire spread in the building, with desperate public servants trapped inside forced to escape through windows.
Speaking to media in La Paz, Interior Minister Carlos Romero sent his condolences to those killed in the violence.
“Our deepest condolences to those people who passed away during this incident. We regret that a social movement led to these acts of violence, confrontation,” he said.
Rifts have deepened in recent months between supporters of President Evo Morales, who credit him with using a natural gas windfall to tackle poverty in one of South America’s most deprived countries, and those who accuse his government of corruption and waste.
Romero regretted that the protest had descended into violence.
“(The victims) were trapped in the toilet, probably where furniture was stacked to protect themselves. The officials were later found in the municipal building.”
The violence comes just days ahead of a national referendum on Sunday (February 21) which will ask Bolivians if they wish to alter the constitution to allow President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term.
Opposition leader of the National Unity Party, Samuel Doria Medina, called for dialogue to resolve political disputes.
“We have been attacks and incredibly spoken out against as if we were the ones that started the attack, this fire, where so many lives were lost. We reiterate, our fight is so there is no violence in Bolivia. We want a strong democracy for everyone so that all conflicts and problems can be resolved through dialogue. We don’t want a situation like in other countries like Venezuela where there is no dialogue, where there is violence everywhere,” he said.
Bolivia’s opposition argue Morales’ attempt to change the constitution to allow him to stay in power until 2025 is anti-democratic. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was re-elected to a third term in 2014, and his supporters say a ‘yes’ vote is crucial to allow him to continue his social programs.