Santiago - Mounting social unrest in Bolivia threatened to turn violent on Wednesday as union organisers urged affiliates to arm themselves against security forces, following two days of generally peaceful protests in La Paz, the capital.
Jaime Solares, leader of the country's main workers' federation, told members to "take up sticks or other mechanisms" as he called for a further two days of national action against the unpopular government of President Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada.
Trade unionists, indigenous groups and farmers have joined forces in recent weeks to protest against government economic policies and private sector plans to export the country's abundant natural gas supplies from a port in Chile, a historic enemy of the landlocked country.
The movement resulted in bloodshed 12 days ago, when troops clashed with armed peasants as they escorted about 800 tourists to safety from one of scores of blockades on the roads around the capital. Six people, including two soldiers, were killed.
That incident prompted some foreign embassies to issue special warnings about moving around the country. Chileans were urged this week not to travel to the neighbouring country.
Protests since then have been relatively peaceful, although on Tuesday police used tear gas to disperse thousands of marchers who paralysed the centre of the capital for several hours.
Teachers and other public sector unions were due to decide on Wednesday whether to join a general strike.
Coca farmers, who claim their livelihoods have been destroyed by US-backed crop eradication programmes, are to meet next week to decide what protest action to take.
The mounting unrest is the second important crisis for Mr Snchez de Lozada this year. In February, the country came near anarchy after striking police and troops traded gunfire outside the presidential palace in the colonial heart of La Paz.
More than 30 people were killed and hundreds injured. Mr Snchez de Lozada admitted later that the incident could have sparked a military coup. This week the president told foreign correspondents he still had the military behind him. He blamed the current unrest on Evo Morales, a firebrand socialist whose anti-globalisation platform and support of the country's coca farmers nearly won him last year's presidential election.
Mr Snchez de Lozada is expected to announce within the next two months details of the controversial gas project, in which a Peruvian port is being considered as an alternative to the more cost-effective Chilean option.
However, the final decision may be influenced by an international consortium composed of Repsol-YPF, BP and BG, which is still negotiating purchase contracts with Sempra of the US.
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