The toll from three weeks of civil unrest now stands at 16 dead, as protestors continue to try to bring the country to a standstill with roadblocks and a general strike.

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Among those killed was a five-year-old boy who died during unrest on Saturday.

The violence has also shut down La Paz airport, as airlines saw it prudent to suspend all flights in and out of the capital, although flights are expected to resume on Monday.

The latest deaths occurred in El Alto, a city of 500,000 residents located 12 kilometres west of La Paz, where troops fired on anti-government protestors.

The Catholic Church and humanitarian groups have called the events in El Alto “a true massacre”. In an open letter to President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, they claimed the army used in El Alto “large-calibre weapons, including heavy machine-guns, against the Bolivian people.”

Union leaders have meanwhile gone into hiding, afraid the government had issued death warrants after accusing them of plotting a coup.

Unions and other protesters have demanded the resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, angry at the planned export of natural gas to the United States via Chile under terms they say do not benefit Bolivians.

They claim that under current law Bolivia would get only 18 percent of the profits from the project.

But presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana has blamed opposition leaders for the violence, saying they are trying to stage a coup.

The President held an emergency cabinet meeting on the weekend and later announced he was willing to meet with opposition leaders in an effort to restore calm to the country.

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