efe-epaLa Paz

The number of people killed in violence involving supporters of ousted President Evo Morales and security forces near the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba has climbed to nine, a civil rights official told Efe on Saturday, while the caretaker government confirmed that information and called for a transparent investigation into the deaths.

Nelson Cox, the representative of the national Ombudsman's Office in the central region of Cochabamba, provided that figure, adding that 115 people were injured, one of them seriously.

Friday's clashes on a road linking the nearby cities of Cochabamba and Sacaba pitted pro-Morales coca growers against police and soldiers, who have been conducting joint operations since Monday in a bid to maintain order amid a wave of violence in Bolivia.

The coca growers were protesting against the interim government headed by Jeanine Añez, a former right-wing senator who took office after Morales resigned and fled to Mexico.

They also were trying to make their way to the city of Cochabamba, where battles between police and protesters have been raging.

Demonstrators set off sticks of dynamite, while the police and armed forces tried to disperse them with tear gas.

Cox said the deaths were due to gunshots presumably fired by police and military personnel.

Five people seriously wounded in the clashes underwent emergency surgery early Saturday at Cochabamba's Viedma hospital, he added.

Cox said after taking part in inspections at the site of the clashes that he observed that bullets from high-caliber weapons had struck walls, signs and other objects.

"There was no clash. There was a crackdown by police and soldiers on the civilian population," Cox said, accusing the security forces of non-compliance with international security protocols and standards.

The Ombudsman's Office has approached coca growers' leaders and union officials for permission to conduct autopsies on those killed and determine the precise cause of their deaths.

The Bolivian interim government's interior minister, Arturo Murillo, said Saturday in Cochabamba that he has called on the attorney general's office to conduct a "transparent" investigation into the deaths.

In a press conference from the headquarters of Bolivia's National Police in Cochabamba, Murillo expressed his condolences to families who lost loved ones.

"If there are deaths, why hide them? We have reports that three of the dead have gunshots in the back of the neck. There's a sick mind behind this," he said.

Separately, Murillo denied that the interim government was "hunting down foreigners," referring to recent arrests of Venezuelan and Cuban citizens presumably accused of financing and supporting protests against the caretaker government.

On Friday, new Foreign Minister Karen Longaric said she spoke with her Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, and that he confirmed to her that to avoid "further exasperating the situation and not harm relations" Havana had decided to "withdraw 725 Cubans working in different cooperation areas."

In that regard, Murillo confirmed that on Saturday he met with Cuba's ambassador, who told him that "he has 18 doctors in Chapare (a rural province in Cochabamba department) and doesn't know how to evacuate them and fears for their lives."

The interior minister said an evacuation operation has been prepared for those citizens, who are to be transported by helicopter to the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

On Saturday, a group of 226 Cuban doctors left the Viru Viru airport in Santa Cruz bound for Cuba.

Clashes stemming from the disputed Oct. 20 presidential election have already left 22 dead and more than 500 injured.

The interim president has proposed new elections and says they will occur as soon as possible. She says Morales's MAS party will be allowed to participate but not Morales himself because she says he is barred from seeking a fourth consecutive term.

Election authorities said that Morales, the first indigenous president of this poor, majority indigenous nation, was re-elected to a fourth term in office in the Oct. 20 first round of balloting marred by allegations of fraud.

The Organization of American States said after conducting an audit of the vote that there had been a "clear manipulation" of the process and said a new election should be held.

Morales agreed to a new vote last Sunday but was forced to resign hours later after losing the support of the military; the opposition, meanwhile, initially said it would not accept the results of the OAS audit but then touted its findings.

A former coca growers' union leader who was in power from 2006 until last weekend and in 2009 enacted a new constitution that "refounded" Bolivia to the advantage of the Andean nation's downtrodden Indian majority, Morales secured a third term in office in 2014 after winning a Constitutional Court decision a year earlier.

That tribunal had ruled that because his initial term began three years prior to the enactment of the new charter it did not count toward term limits restricting presidents to two five-year periods in office.

It then appeared Morales would be barred from running for yet another term this year after voters narrowly rejected his plans to do so in a 2016 plebiscite, but the Constitutional Court in late 2017 abolished term limits for all elected officials on the grounds that they violate candidates' human rights. EFE-EPA