LIMA, Peru (AP) - Peru gave refuge to two more former Bolivian government ministers who fled genocide charges for the 2003 army killings of dozens of protesters, Peru's foreign minister said Tuesday.
Bolivia had been demanding that Peru hand over the two ex-officials as well as a third granted political asylum in April, in a case that has further strained relations between the two South American neighbors.
There was no immediate reaction from Bolivia to Tuesday's announcement that the two fugitives had been granted status as refugees, but earlier Bolivian President Evo Morales called the former ministers "criminals" and said giving them haven would be "an open provocation of the Bolivian people."
Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said former Bolivian ministers Mirtha Quevedo and Javier Torres Goitia requested and have received refugee status, a legal measure that - unlike asylum - does not denote political persecution.
Former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez Lozada and 17 of his former ministers are charged with genocide for sending soldiers who killed 63 people in 2003 while quelling anti-government protests in the city of El Alto, a bastion of support for Morales. The charges were filed after Morales took office in 2006.
Sanchez resigned the presidency after the bloodshed and fled to the United States, where President George W. Bush granted him and two of his ministers asylum.
A trial in Bolivia is scheduled for May 18 on the genocide charge, which carries a penalty of 30 years in prison.
Former officials have been fleeing Bolivia, saying they cannot get a fair trial in what they call a politically motivated case.
Supporting that argument, Garcia Belaunde said Tuesday: "Mr. Morales' accusation has all of the marks and characteristics of being political in nature and we have thus granted asylum and refuge" to former Bolivian minister Jorge Torres Obleas in April.
Even before the squabble over the fugitives, relations were poor between Peru and Bolivia. Morales, a leftist, opposes Peruvian President Alan Garcia's push for a free trade pact with the European Union and is a strong critic of Peru's free trade pact with the U.S.
Peru lodged a protest Tuesday with Bolivia's ambassador in Lima over comments made by Morales over the weekend in which he addressed his counterpart as "my vulgar companion Alan Garcia."