Protesters storm Bolivia airport

Other News Materials 20 October 2007 07:04 (UTC +04:00)

Thousands of local residents have stormed Bolivia's busiest airport, taking back control from troops sent in by President Evo Morales.

Protesters armed with clubs and waving flags occupied halls and runways at the airport in the province of Santa Cruz.

The dispute pits Bolivia's richest region against the central government.

President Morales' socialist government had sent in troops after claiming that local officials were illegally demanding landing fee payments.

But the troops pulled back on Friday to avoid clashes with protesters.

Most flights at the Viru Viru airport have been running normally despite the dispute, reports say.

Demonstrators were responding to a call from the Santa Cruz governor, Ruben Costas, for people to turn out in huge numbers on Friday to wrest back control of the airport before the troops had withdrawn.

"We need 20,000 to 50,000 people awaiting orders from the only commander in this town, who is me," said Mr Costas, one of the fiercest opponents of President Morales.

Correspondents say security has worsened in recent weeks in Santa Cruz.

The gas-rich province is seeking autonomy from the federal government.

On Thursday Mr Morales defended the action of troops who had fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters as they tried to storm the airport a first time. He said it was unacceptable that airport workers had tried to force airlines to pay landing fees to the local, rather than federal, authorities.

The crisis began when airport workers held up an American Airlines plane bound for Miami on Tuesday, demanding that landing fees be paid on the spot rather than passed on to the federal aviation authorities.

Mr Morales said he had ordered the military intervention to prevent the airport losing its good reputation.

This in turn brought several hundred people to the airport, who tried to break through the gates but were forced back by the troops.

The airport crisis is part of a long-running dispute between local leaders in Santa Cruz and the central government of President Morales.

The local airport authority used to appoint its own directors, but three months ago federal officials installed their own person to lead the agency, the Associated Press news agency said.

The province has rich farmlands and is the centre of Bolivia's energy industry.

Santa Cruz leaders want autonomy from the central authorities and a bigger share of natural gas revenues.

They also oppose attempts by President Morales to nationalise key industries and redistribute land. ( BBC )