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New York Times: Bolivian Forces Take Control of Pipeline

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: February 4, 2007
Filed at 2:58 a.m. ET

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Soldiers and police retook control of a natural gas installation Saturday, using tear gas and rubber bullets to drive out protesters who had forced the closing of a key pipeline serving the nation’s two largest cities.

Demonstrators seized the Transredes pumping station near Camiri, 320 miles southeast of La Paz, following five days of protests demanding that President Evo Morales broaden his petroleum nationalization and expand state energy company operations in the area.

Interior Government Minister Alfredo Rada confirmed Saturday that two protesters had been injured in the operation. He said protesters later tried to retake the plant by blasting through its outer wall with dynamite, a tactic he called ”absolutely unjustified.”

”Using explosives so close to a hydrocarbons installation is highly dangerous,” Rada said. ”We ask the leaders of Camiri to act with rationality, responsibility, and patriotism.”

Protest leaders, meanwhile, have accused government forces of using real bullets during the operation, also risking an explosion. Rada denied using lethal force.

”Mr. Morales, we will blockade as long as necessary,” protest leader Mirko Orgaz said in an interview on Bolivian radio. ”We are not afraid of your bullets.”

The pipeline serves La Paz and the eastern city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s two largest cities, but the brief shutdown did not affect supplies in either city. The shutdown also did not affect pipelines carrying Bolivian natural gas to neighboring Brazil and Argentina.

Officials at Transredes, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, told The Associated Press Saturday they were still waiting for instructions from the Bolivian government before re-establishing pipeline flow.

Since Monday, the protesters have blockaded the main highway outside Camiri to demand that Bolivian state energy company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos, or YPFB, build a local headquarters in their town.

The office was planned before Morales was inaugurated last year, but scrapped as the beleaguered company reorganizes itself under the terms of his oil and gas nationalization.

Saying that nationalization has not gone far enough, the demonstrators also have demanded that Morales seize two Bolivian oil refineries operated by Brazilian state energy giant Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras — a move his government announced last September but quickly aborted in the face of fierce international criticism.

Morales nationalized Bolivia’s extensive natural gas fields last May, sending soldiers to seize foreign companies’ installations. But after six months of delicate negotiations the companies were allowed to remain in the country after signing new contracts granting the state a significantly larger share of their revenues.

In the early 20th century, Camiri was home to one of Bolivia’s first big gas wells, but production has since moved elsewhere. Local residents hope a new YPFB office could bring jobs to the area.

Shutting down pipelines is a common form of political protest in Bolivia. Last August, demonstrators briefly shutdown a gas pipeline to Argentina to protest border crossing fees, while in the same month Guarani Indians seized a pipeline control facility to demand a larger share of gas royalties.

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