La Paz: Bus and truck drivers and powerful citizens groups took to the streets of several Bolivian cities on Thursday to protest a fuel price increase in a challenge to leftist President Evo Morales.
The government`s decision to slash fuel subsidies -- sending prices soaring by as much as 83 percent after being announced on Sunday -- has sparked outrage in a country rich in natural gas, landing Morales with one of the biggest crises of his five years in power.
Thursday`s protests were generally peaceful but dozens of demonstrators set fire to toll booths on the main highway linking El Alto to neighbouring La Paz, Bolivia`s administrative capital. The protesters hurled sticks and stones at police, who used tear gas to clear the area.
Bus and truck drivers protested by blocking roads and public transportation was crippled in La Paz.
Morales, a close ally of fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, enjoys solid support among Bolivia`s poor indigenous majority but the rise in fuel price has angered his leftist base and trade unions have led demands for the increase to be reversed.
Morales, who announced wage increases on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to calm protests over the so-called "gasolinazo" measure, defended the price hikes again on Thursday as a vital tool to cut imports and spur lagging investment in oil output.
"This is the end of a neoliberal subsidy that caused corruption," Morales told a news conference, referring to the brisk trade in smuggling cheap Bolivian fuel to Peru.
The end of the fuel subsidies is expected to save the state about USD 380 million each year -- equivalent to about 2 percent of gross domestic product.
At least 1,000 people from the sprawling slum city of El Alto marched to nearby La Paz on Thursday, one of many protests planned for the city.
Between 2003 and 2005, two Bolivian presidents were toppled by protests in which El Alto residents played a leading role.