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Bolivia edges towards peace as torn country mourns its dead

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By Mitra Taj and Daniel Ramos

SACABA/LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians have taken down roadblocks and struck peace deals after a month of protests and deadly clashes that have convulsed the divided nation following a disputed election in October and the resignation of long-term leader Evo Morales.

On Monday, hundreds of people in the city of Sacaba, one of the areas worst hit by violence, held a minute of silence for the 33 people who have died since the Oct. 20 vote. Most have been killed in the last two weeks.

But from the mountainous region of Cochabamba to de facto capital La Paz, signs are that the worst of the violence may be over as sparring politicians and civic leaders rallied to hold new elections and pull back from confrontation.

“We are returning to normal after something so hard and so dramatic, but I think we are moving forward,” caretaker leader Jeanine Añez told reporters on Monday. Añez had on Sunday signed into law a bill to hold new elections.

Bolivia, led by Morales since 2006, spiraled into chaos after the October election was mired in controversy as evidence grew it had been rigged in the leftist leader’s favour. Morales was eventually forced to resign amid widespread protests and after police forces and the military withdrew their backing.

Morales’ Nov. 10 resignation, however, sparked a violent and volatile period as his supporters blockaded strategic routes to stop the flow of fuel and food to major cities and the military was mobilized on the streets against them.

The deaths since have raised pressure on Añez’s interim government, with Morales backers blaming her for the violence. Añez and the military say they have not used excessive force and blame Morales, now in Mexico, for stoking the unrest.

“We have had many stumbles, but we hope that from now on we will move forward and have elections very soon,” Añez added.

In Sacaba, where nine people died in clashes with security forces, a key coca farmer union boss and Morales ally told Reuters on Monday mobilized groups would now work to “pacify the country and prepare for the next election”.

Andrónico Rodríguez said, however, that the interim government needed to also back down from its “radical” stance and repeated his view that Morales had been toppled.

“We maintain our firm position that the constitutional rule of our brother President Evo Morales has been usurped and forcibly interrupted,” he said.

Graphic: Bolivia death toll , https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/editorcharts/BOLIVIA-POLITICS/0H001QXKN9HZ/eikon.png

(Reporting by Mitra Taj and Danny Ramos; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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