Rebel police clashed with pro-government supporters Monday outside Bolivia's presidential palace on the fifth day of a mutiny demanding better pay.
About 1,000 police officers and 500 protesters threw punches and sticks on the Plaza de Armas, though no injuries were immediately reported. Police officers, clad in civilian clothes, fired tear gas to disband their attackers.
After several minutes, the pro-government supporters retreated from the square. They represented social movements and trade unions allied with President Evo Morales, who has accused the opposition of plotting a coup.
By the afternoon, about 1,000 police had surrounded the square outside the presidential palace. A pile of sombreros, ponchos and whips seized during the clashes were gathered in a pile and burnt by the police.
It was unclear whether Morales was in the government palace, which was closed and under guard by a military unit not involved in the protests.
Since Thursday, low-ranking officers in this impoverished Latin American country have rioted to demand a pay increase. Authorities accuse them of stockpiling weapons and pressuring other units to turn over their arms in an attempt to overthrow the leftist government -- charges the protestors deny.
The mutiny has since spread across the country.
Refusing to budge from their demand for a minimum pay hike to 2,000 bolivianos ($287), from the current average of $195 a month, police in the capital have denounced union leaders for caving in to the government by signing a deal setting a smaller increase.
"We will continue our protests because they are fair," said police sergeant Omar Huayllani, from the Santa Cruz garrison, one of the biggest in the country.
Police in other major cities like Potosi, Cochabamba and Beni have also rejected the deal, which would have seen pay packages boosted by 220 bolivianos ($32) a month, Catholic radio Fides reported. Only in Santa Cruz to the east have police decided to suspend their protest, according to the broadcaster.
The protester's demands also include full pay upon retirement, a police ombudsman and the overturning of a law that bans them from publicly expressing their opinions.
On Sunday, Morales alleged that those on strike, in partnership with the opposition, had plans to kill Interior Minister Carlos Romero and attack the military with Molotov cocktails.
Police sergeant Javier Quispe, a spokesman for the strikers, denied any plans for a coup, calling it a "total lie."
National police chief Colonel Victor Maldonado -- whom protesters are calling on to resign -- has ordered all officers to take up their regular duties in accordance with the deal.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia on Monday repeated the charges that the rebels were trying to carry out a coup.
"There are dark forces at work who are trying to effect a coup," he said.
The mutiny began Thursday when protesters took over the headquarters of the country's riot police and eight other police stations. It then spread to more than two dozen police stations and command centers across the country.
On Friday, a crowd of some 300 striking police, dressed in civilian clothes and covering their faces, attacked the National Intelligence Directorate, smashing windows, pulling out furniture, documents and computers, and even setting flags on fire.
Roughly 300 protesters later hurled rocks and smashed windows at national police headquarters. Police on duty outside the building offered no resistance.
But analyst Carlos Cordero told AFP he did not believe a coup was in the making. "I absolutely don't see it, you are not seeing coup leaders on the street touting a gun in each hand," he said.
"The government has lost direction, it has a bad image and wants to change that image and is trying to win backing for its handling of the situation."© ANP/AFP