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Last Updated: Friday, 19 October 2007, 21:39 GMT 22:39 UK
Protesters storm Bolivia airport
Demonstrators at the Viru Viru airport 19 October, 2007
The airport crisis is part of a wider battle over control of the province
Thousands of local residents have occupied Bolivia's busiest airport, after troops sent in by President Evo Morales withdrew.

Protesters armed with clubs and waving flags rallied 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.

'Commander'

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.

But the 220 troops withdrew before about 7,000 protesters reached the site.

"This has been a victory for the people of this town, and it has been a defeat for the wicked," said Santa Cruz governor Ruben Costas, who is a fierce opponent of President Morales.

A protester surrounded by tear gas in Santa Cruz
Police used tear gas against protesters on Thursday

The soldiers left "with their tails between their legs," said Mr Costas.

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.

Smouldering dispute

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.

map

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.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Bolivian soldiers fire tear gas at protesters



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