Bolivia seeks new leader as Morales heads to Mexico for refuge
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia's former leader Evo Morales was heading to Mexico to seek asylum on Tuesday as security forces sought to quell violence over the long-serving leftist's resignation and lawmakers jostled to establish an interim replacement.
Morales, who quit after weeks of protests over a disputed October election, flew in a Mexican Air Force airplane from the town of Chimore, a stronghold where Bolivia's first indigenous president had retreated to as his 14-year rule imploded.
The plane stopped in Paraguay to refuel, before flying on to Mexico where it was due to arrive around 11 a.m. local time (1700 GMT).
"His life and integrity are safe," tweeted Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, whose leftist government has supported Morales' accusations of a coup against him by political rivals.
Ebrard tweeted a photo of Morales seated alone in the jet with a downcast, unsmiling expression, displaying Mexico's red, white and green flag across his lap.
In Bolivia's highland capital La Paz, roadblocks were still in place after soldiers and police patrolled late into the night to deter fighting between rival political groups and looting that erupted after Morales' resignation.
The charismatic 60-year-old former coca-leaf farmer was beloved by the poor when he won power in 2006, but alienated Bolivians by insisting on seeking a fourth term, in defiance of term limits and a 2016 referendum in which Bolivians voted against him being allowed to do so.
Paraguayan President Mario Abdo said on Tuesday his country had been willing to grant political asylum to Morales, though he rejected suggestions of a coup. He added several leaders in the region had discussed how to help bring peace back to Bolivia.
"If he resigned, it is not a coup. He resigned," he said.
NEW PRESIDENT SOUGHT
Lawmakers were expected to meet on Tuesday to formally accept Morales' resignation and begin deciding on an interim leader prior to a new election.
The government collapsed on Sunday after the Organization of American States (OAS) delivered a damning report on irregularities during the October vote, prompting ruling party allies to quit and the army to urge Morales' departure.
With Morales' deputy and many allies in government and parliament also gone, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president, Jeanine Anez, was theoretically in line to take the top job temporarily and said she would accept.
However, in a sign of stark divisions and the complex path ahead, Anez tweeted a memo from Morales' Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, which said she was also part of a coup and that Adriana Salvatierra, the Senate leader who resigned on television on Sunday should, instead, lead the transition.
"Don't they know that the ex-President of the Senate publicly resigned?" she wrote.
Bolivia and Latin America are starkly divided by Morales' fall, with detractors exulting in the fall of a "dictator" and supporters denouncing a coup by right-wing foes determined to put Bolivia's capitalist elite back in charge.
A U.S. official in Washington said the Trump administration had no objection to Mexico granting asylum to Morales, and hoped his departure could help stabilize the situation on the ground in Bolivia, though much depended on Morales's stance.
It was unclear whether Mexico had consulted with the U.S. government in advance over whether to accept Morales.
Morales' Defense Minister Javier Zavaleta also resigned on Tuesday and called on election runner-up Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho to avoid violence.
Morales achieved steady economic growth in one of the region's poorest nations and was for many years hugely popular, but his successful legal challenge to a 2016 referendum stopping him running for another term brought accusations of autocracy.
His departure has added to a wave of unrest around Latin America, including in nearby Ecuador and Chile, where protesters have been berating leaders over social inequalities.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador praised Morales for resigning rather than putting lives at risk.
(Reporting by Monica Machicao, Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery in La Paz, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bernadette Baum)
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