Bolivia: One Dead, Police Held Hostage in Provincial Gas Dispute

Source: IPS News

Protesters stormed natural gas plants in the Bolivian border town of Yacuiba and took 47 police officers hostage after a demonstrator was killed, in the midst of a provincial dispute for control over a gas field that could generate some 100 million dollars a year in taxes.

Yacuiba is on the border with Argentina in the southern Bolivian province of Tarija. Two districts in that department, O’Connor and Gran Chaco, have been involved in a dispute over their borders since 2003, shortly after the discovery of the vast Margarita gas field, which has 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and is operated by the Spanish-Argentine Repsol-YPF.

The government said Thursday that natural gas exports to Argentina are "completely normal," despite the disturbances.

The protests in Yacuiba, which is located in Gran Chaco, were a response to roadblocks staged two weeks ago in O’Connor.

Bolivia, whose 48 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are the second-largest reserves in South America after Venezuela’s, exports 27 million cubic metres a day to Brazil and seven million to Argentina.

President Evo Morales urged the provincial authorities to restore order and called on people in the region not to fight over money.

On Wednesday afternoon, some 10,000 people swarmed the installations of the private consortium Transredes, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. They set fire to two vehicles of the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales de Bolivia (YPFB), smashed computers and seized 2,000 liquefied gas cylinders.

Vandalism and looting were also reported in downtown Yacuiba late Wednesday, according to radio reports.

A police chief and 46 officers were disarmed and held Wednesday night in municipal offices, awaiting talks for their release, while a shouting crowd outside demanded their weapons.

The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Bolivia (APDHB) was trying to broker talks between the government and the protesters, Víctor Farfán, a representative of the organisation, told IPS.

"The gas field in dispute belongs to Bolivia and should not trigger clashes between brothers and sisters," said the activist.

Meanwhile, people in O’Connor are also laying claim to the Margarita field and are threatening to close the pipeline valves in a plant in the town of Entre Ríos.

During an assembly in that town, civic leaders decided "to defend the gas royalties and taxes and our territory with bloodshed and thousands of dead bodies."

Late Tuesday, a bullet supposedly fired by one of the soldiers guarding the Transredes plants in Villamontes, in Gran Chaco, injured 37-year-old Derman Ruiz, who died on arrival at the hospital. He reportedly bled to death from a wound in his leg.

The incident occurred when residents of Villamontes occupied the company’s installations with the aim of shutting the valves of pipelines that run to the city of Tarija, the provincial capital, and across the border to Argentina.

Morales’ chief of staff Juan Ramón Quintana explained that the government order to guard the gas plants was focused on preserving public assets and guaranteeing gas supplies, and clarified that the troops did not have instructions to use lethal force.

But on Wednesday morning, 11 people were injured by firearms in confrontations with the security forces deployed to the offices of Transredes in Yacuiba.

In the city of Tarija, the hospitals sent out an urgent appeal for blood donations, to save the lives of several gravely wounded patients.

Government spokesman Alex Contreras invited the leaders of the protests from the districts of O’Connor and Gran Chaco to an emergency meeting in La Paz, and told IPS that the Morales administration is seeking a peaceful solution to the dispute.

The district of O’Connor had jurisdiction over Chimeo, the area where the Margarita field is located, in elections. But after the field began to produce gas, Gran Chaco started to lay claim to the area.

Before the discovery of gas there, Chimeo was ignored and neglected, inhabited only by extremely poor families who depend on fishing and hunting for a living.

Yacuiba, Villamontes and Entre Ríos, where the disturbances have taken place, are located at least 70 kms from the gas field. But there are fears that the groups in conflict will head out to the Margarita field itself, which could lead to violent clashes between the different groups of protesters.

The border dispute was brought before the Tarija provincial government, but has been held up by legal questions for three years. Governor Mario Cossío of the opposition Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) has been deprived by the Morales administration of the authority to issue a decision himself.

The central government has blamed Cossío for instigating the protests, and has assigned the resolution of the dispute to authorities in the neighbouring province of Potosí. (END/2007)

Source: IPS News