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Bolivia should conduct a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of the killing of at least 15 civilians in a confrontation in Pando department, Human Rights Watch said today.

The governing party and the opposition offer conflicting accounts of the confrontation on the night of September 11, 2008. The central government says that the prefect of Pando, Leopoldo Fernández, planned and authorized a massacre of supporters of President Evo Morales. Fernández says he played no role in the killings, calling it a dispute between civilian groups.

“An independent and unbiased investigation is absolutely critical to ensuring that those responsible for these killings are brought to justice,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

On the night of the confrontations, supporters of the president who were traveling to a meeting in the town of Porvenir were stopped at a roadblock set up by opposition supporters. A violent clash followed, in which at least 15 people were killed and 37 wounded, according to an initial inquiry by the government. More than 100 people are still unaccounted for, the inquiry found. In a separate incident in the neighboring town of Filadelfia, three students were killed and the town hall burned to the ground.

On September 16, Bolivia’s House of Representatives created a special commission comprised of members of the governing party and the opposition to investigate the incident in Pando.
“The formation of the special commission is a positive development,” said Vivanco. “But ultimately any investigation must lead to the identification and prosecution of those responsible for the crimes on that night.”

The violence is rooted in an ongoing dispute between President Morales and prefects from five of Bolivia’s departments over the allocation of authority and control of natural resources.
Clashes have not been limited to the Pando department. In Santa Cruz, protesters seized control of government offices, media outlets, and the headquarters of a local human rights organization.

In the immediate aftermath of the violence, the federal government declared a state of emergency and sent the Bolivian Army to Pando to restore order. Since then, the military has arrested at least 11 people on charges of inciting violence, as well as Fernández, the Pando prefect.

“The government should issue clear instructions to security forces that efforts to restore order must be consistent with international human rights guarantees,” said Vivanco. “The prefects should publicly denounce the use violence by protesters and call on police to protect civilians on all sides when such confrontations occur.”

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