The United Nations has warned mounting unrest in Bolivia could “spin out of control” after nine people died in the latest escalation of violence between between security forces and supporters of former president Evo Morales.
Protesters loyal to Mr Morales, who resigned from office and fled to Mexico after being accused of electoral fraud, were fired upon by armed police on Friday after attempting to cross a military checkpoint in the central city of Sacaba.
Witnesses reported seeing the bloodied bodies of several demonstrators, while dozens more were rushed to hospitals. Bolivia’s national ombudsman later confirmed nine people had died, bringing the death toll from the violence which has rocked the country to 23.
The protests follow Jeanine Anez’s assumption of presidential power earlier this week following last month’s disputed election. The 52-year-old stepped in to fill the political vacuum after Bolivia’s vice-president and the leaders of the senate and lower house joined Mr Morales in resigning.
On Saturday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet issued a statement calling the latest deaths “an extremely dangerous development.”
“I am really concerned that the situation in Bolivia could spin out of control if the authorities do not handle it sensitively and in accordance with international norms,” she said.
“Repressive actions by the authorities… are likely to jeopardise any possible avenue for dialogue,” she added.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also condemned Ms Anez’s administration for issuing a decree it says “exempts from criminal responsibility” soldiers who have taken part in efforts to suppress the unrest.
Mr Morales, who has said he is willing to return to Bolivia to stage a fresh round of elections, described Friday’s violence as a “massacre”.
He added: “Now they are killing our brothers in Sacaba, Cochabamba.”
Pro-Morales politicians have been seeking to challenge the legitimacy of Ms Anez’s government, boycotting a congressional called to formalise her claim to the presidency, and have been attempting to stage new counter sessions.
Ms Anez’s appointment as interim leader has been endorsed by Bolivia’s Constitutional Court – as well as the United States, which announced its support on Wednesday.