LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivia's interior minister and his deputy resigned Tuesday after mounting recriminations over a violent police crackdown on marchers opposed to a jungle highway that they say would despoil an indigenous preserve.
Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti became the second Cabinet member to step down over the weekend action, which backfired as angry crowds pressured police into releasing the hundreds of protesters they had detained.
Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest immediately after Sunday's crackdown by about 500 police officers who fired tear gas and wielded clubs in the eastern lowlands.
The backlash is a major setback for President Evo Morales, who by stubbornly insisting on the 190-mile (300-kilometer) jungle highway had alienated many of his indigenous core supporters in this poor, landlocked nation where more than two in three people are members of indigenous groups.
Morales announced Monday that he was suspending the Brazil-funded highway and leaving it to voters in the two affected regions to decide its fate.
Llorenti had initially defended the crackdown and denied excessive force was used.
But before resigning on Tuesday he said neither he nor Morales had ordered the police against the marchers. He blamed Deputy Minister Marcos Farfan, who resigned to take responsibility but also denied ordering the police action.
The director of Bolivia's migration agency, Maria Rene Quiroga, resigned Tuesday to protest the breakup of the march by some 1,000 people who departed the provincial capital of Trinidad in mid-August on foot bound for the highlands capital of La Paz.
It was not clear how many people were injured or how seriously during Sunday's clash.
Morales has been an impassioned champion of the campaign to curb global warming but is seen as less environmentally friendly at home for insisting on building the highway through the 600-square-mile (12,000-square-kilometer) Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park. It is home to 15,000 indigenous people who live off hunting, fishing, gathering fruit and subsistence farming.
Park inhabitants fear the road would bring an influx of settlers who would destroy their habitat by felling trees and polluting rivers.
Environmentalists say the road would mostly benefit Brazilian commercial interests such as timber exporters while endangering a pristine nature preserve.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, has been fiercely criticized as turning a deaf ear to those who re-elected him by a landslide in 2009.
The president, who is also leader Bolivia's coca growers union, has seen his support in opinion polls fall to 37 percent, its second-lowest level since he was first elected in 2005.
Later Tuesday, Morales named Ruben Saavedra, a former defense minister, to take on that post again. Saavedra has been head of the Strategic Office of Maritime Access, an agency that was created by presidential decree last spring to work on regaining access to the Pacific that Bolivia lost in a war with Chile in the late 19th century.
Wilfredo Chavez, who has been deputy minister of government coordination, was sworn in as the new interior minister.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.