(Gulfnews) Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Thousands of residents of Bolivia's wealthiest province seized control of the country's busiest airport from government troops, ending the latest face-off in an ongoing battle between President Evo Morales and this natural gas-rich state.
The peaceful takeover of Santa Cruz's Viru Viru airport, a day after troops had occupied its facilities, came as a blow to Morales, who faces increasing resistance from Santa Cruz leaders who want greater autonomy from his socialist government.
Morales's top aide, Juan Ramon Quintana, called the seizure "a defeat for the people of Bolivia". But his government appeared to accept the airport's return to local control, and said it hoped Santa Cruz authorities would root out corruption it claims is plaguing airport operations.
On Thursday, Morales ordered more than 220 troops to take control of the airport after workers threatened to block flights that refused to pay landing fees to local officials rather than to the national airport authority.
At least two soldiers were wounded in the operation. Local hospitals reported another 20 people were injured as troops fired tear gas in clashes with protesters who shouted: "The airport belongs to Santa Cruz!"
When Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas called for residents to retake the airport from soldiers, thousands responded, marching toward the terminal where startled passengers waited.
Soldiers and military police had cleared away, avoiding clashes with protesters. It was not immediately clear if the soldiers had left the airport entirely, but a rattled Morales said in a televised address on Friday he'd ordered the troops withdrawn to prevent violence.
Planes continued to land and take off on Friday, although passengers aboard one flight were forced to disembark while pilots waited for the airport's regular air traffic controllers to return.
The head of the local airport authority said operations were back to normal by mid-afternoon.
The soldiers left "with their tails between their legs", Governor Costas said, dismissing government charges that the airport's local operators are corrupt.
"They should learn to resort to justice," instead of using the military to solve their problems, Costas told marchers gathered at the airport.
Among the air carriers affected this week were American Airlines, which cancelled two flights through Santa Cruz on Wednesday and one on Thursday.
The airline, a unit of Dallas-based AMR Corporation, said it had resumed its usual two flights a day through San Cruz on Friday.
The airport conflict has broad political implications because Santa Cruz, the nation's largest and wealthiest province, has resisted Morales's economic policies and efforts to nationalise industries and redistribute wealth in a bid to overcome the nation's poverty - the highest in South America.
Santa Cruz is home to soy plantations, cattle ranches and is the centre of Bolivia's energy industry.
Its leaders want autonomy from La Paz and a bigger share of their state's natural gas revenues, but Morales, a close ally of Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, wants to use the cash to fuel "indigenous socialism," especially in the country's poorer highland states.
Among those stranded by the crisis was Norman F. Mydske, the Latin America director of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, who had been trying to catch a connection to Cochabamba, Bolivia's central city, since Tuesday.
"I pray everything goes well," he said.