Bolivia begins military training for civilians

Opposition calls the training a first step toward creating pro-govt militias.

La Paz: Bolivia`s leftist government said it has begun military training for civilians at Army barracks in what the opposition called a first step toward creating pro-government militias.

Weapons instruction and physical training began on Monday for hundreds at military bases in Bolivia`s east, a stronghold of the pro-business opposition, and Army officials said it would extend to all bases.

The program is reminiscent of one that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched in his country after a failed 2002 coup attempt that he blamed on the United States.

Venezuela claims it has 120,000 participants.

Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales are close allies.

Questions about the Bolivian training arose after a television station broadcast images of young men armed yesterday with rifles taking target practice at a base in the eastern provincial capital of Santa Cruz. Also seen in the video were indigenous women in their 20s and 30s in billowing skirts and bowler hats doing calisthenics.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia, a former leftist guerrilla, said the purpose of the training is to enable civilians to assist in defending the homeland. He called participation "a citizen`s duty”.

Officials said there were no plans to arm civilians.

"These training activities that we have with the citizenry are for the defence of the country," Gen Ramiro Siles, commander of the Army`s 8th Division, told reporters.

The division is based in Santa Cruz, the seat of opposition to what Morales calls the "re-foundation" of Bolivia -- returning power its indigenous majority. That has included confiscating ranches from major landholders including an American from Montana.


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