Troops, residents fight for control of Bolivia's busiest airport

Harold Olmos, Associated Press, 10/18/2007

Soldiers fired tear gas at angry residents who tried to storm Bolivia's busiest airport Thursday as the facility became a focal point of an autonomy dispute between the federal government and the country's wealthiest province.

Several hundred residents of the city and province of Santa Cruz attempted to crash through the gates of the Viru Viru airport, which was seized earlier in the day by the military.

Waving green-and-white Santa Cruz flags and setting off fireworks, the protesters were repelled by volleys of tear gas fired by military police from behind the airport's gates. Small grass fires burned, apparently set off by the fireworks or hot tear gas canisters.
Motorists were stranded in a traffic jam that extended at least two miles on the approach to the airport Thursday evening. However, an operator who answered the airport's customer service line said there had been no flight cancellations.

About 220 air force troops and military police stormed Viru Viru before Thursday after airport workers detained an American Airlines plane on the runway, demanding the carrier pay them landing fees in cash. The plane was bound for Miami on Tuesday with 140 passengers aboard.

The workers were demanding the airline pay landing fees of up to $2,000 in cash locally, rather than deposit the fees with the federal airport authority.

In the military raid, one soldier was wounded by gunfire and another was treated for cuts from either a knife or broken glass, officials said. There were no immediate reports of more injuries when protesters tried to retake the airport, but an AP reporter saw eight ambulances driving toward the airport.

The airport conflict took on broader political implications because Santa Cruz, the nation's largest province, has chafed under the government of leftist President Evo Morales as it moves to nationalize industries and redistribute land and wealth to the country's poor majority.

"We want to take back what is ours," said Omar Mustafa, one of the Santa Cruz protesters. "It has been stolen by the government using army troops."

Santa Cruz is home to soy plantations, cattle ranches and real estate and the provinces relatively wealthy residents feel targeted by government plans to seize land judged idle or fraudulently obtained for redistribution.

Santa Cruz is also the center of Bolivia's energy industry, and some worry about foreign investment now that Morales has forced international gas companies to increase royalty payments. Its leaders want autonomy and a bigger share of their state's natural gas revenues, but Morales needs the cash for desperately poor highland states.

Viru Viru "will remain militarized until the government is certain there will be no more disturbances," Javier Garcia, the head of civil aviation, told reporters.
On Wednesday, American, a unit of Dallas-based AMR Corp., and Brazil's Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA temporarily suspended service to Bolivia due to the conflict at Viru Viru.

Quinn said the government was calling on Viru Viru workers, who number about 100, to return to their jobs. But, he said, the airport will be run by the federal government for about 90 days while the local airport agency is audited.

Republished from Dallas Morning News

No comments: