But the military has only given qualified support to embattled President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

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General Roberto Claros questioned the President “as a person” but vowed to respect the army’s duty to “defend a legitimately constituted government”.

The uneasy political situation was mirrored by an uneasy calm in the capital, as armoured vehicles patrolled the empty streets of La Paz, after nearly a month of riots, arson and protests around the country.

The unrest has continued in nearby El Alto, where police again used tear gas to disperse looters throughout the town.

Human rights groups say at least 58 people have been killed and 200 injured in three weeks of protests that were sparked by a plan export natural gas via a pipeline through Chile to the Pacific and onto the United States and Mexico.

Opposition to the $US5 billion ($A7.25 billion) project is strong among unions, coca growers and government critics, who argue that Bolivia’s 18 percent share of the profit is too small. National resentment toward Chile, which won Bolivia’s outlet to the sea in an 1879 war, also runs deep.

President Sanchez de Lozada has tried to defuse the situation by promising not to export natural gas to any new markets before December 31, to allow for a thorough public debate.

Unions have instead called for a referendum on the matter, with many Bolivians demanding the pipeline be built through Peru, despite higher construction costs

However the President has defied calls to resign, describing the widespread rioting as “a grand subversive project organised and financed from outside the country to destroy Bolivia’s democracy”.

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