Police in 3 Bolivian cities join opposition

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Police in three Bolivian cities on Friday joined anti-government protests, in one case marching with demonstrators in La Paz, in the first sign security forces are withdrawing support from Bolivian President Evo Morales after a disputed election that has triggered riots.

The government has so far not confronted the spreading police rebellion, attempting instead to minimize its scale and importance.

Defense Minister Javier Zabaleta downplayed police protests, saying a "police mutiny occurred in a few regions".

In the city of Cochabamba, the scene of violent clashes, Reuters journalists reported seeing police officers protesting on the roof of their headquarters in an apparent act of disobedience against the government. Some police guards have abandoned their posts at several ministerial buildings.

Morales, Latin America's longest-standing leader, won the election on October 20 but the vote count had been inexplicably halted for almost a day.

The government said on Friday that an audit of the contentious presidential election would likely be completed early next week, which could either back Morales' victory or throw open the door to a new vote.

In a tweet, President Morales denounced the protests as an "attack on the rule of law".

During the counting of votes protest rallies sprang up across Bolivia and later morphed into civil unrest.

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"They (skulls) told me they are anxious, not only the Ñatitas, but all the saints in heaven and that they see us and they think Bolivia will get back to normal again", said Delfina Condotiticona, a regular devotee of the practice.

"The Right says 'Evo has to resign.' I want to tell you, sisters and brothers, to all of Bolivia and the world, I will not resign", Morales, a socialist, said at a public event.

Carlos Mesa, the main opposition leader and a former president who finished second in the October 20 vote, promptly rejected the suggestion.

In La Paz, dozens of protesters marched to the Military College to urge the troops to join the push for Morales's resignation.

The Organization of American States is conducting an audit of the election count and their findings are expected Monday or Tuesday.

In the city of Santa Cruz, a stronghold for anti-Morales sentiment, hundreds of opposition supporters marched along with police mutineers.

After the October 20 vote, the country's first indigenous president declared himself the outright victor even before official results indicated he obtained just enough support to avoid a runoff with Mesa.

The opposition has been demanding Morales' resignation and fresh elections. But an unexplained 24-hour halt in releasing the vote results, which when resumed showed a shift in favour of the incumbent president, has fuelled accusations of fraud. Neither Camacho nor Mesa say they will accept the results because they were not properly consulted about the process.

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