April 18, 2006

Three Bolivian ministers kidnapped by townspeople

LA PAZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - Three Bolivian government
ministers were kidnapped near the Brazilian border by
townspeople who demanded the legalization of a foreign-owned
steel plant in their village, the government said on Tuesday.

Planning Minister Carlos Villegas, Economic Development
Minister Celinda Sosa and Mining Minister Walter Villarroel
were being held hostage in the southeastern town of Puerto
Suarez, Bolivian Defense Minister Walker San Miguel told the
state news agency ABI.

Local radio stations reported that the ministers were
abducted at dusk and would spend the night under the watch of
local leaders and townspeople. No violence was reported.

San Miguel told ABI the ministers had traveled to Puerto
Suarez to explain that the Brazilian-owned steel plant being
built there violated constitutional rules that prohibit foreign
ownership within 30 miles of the border.

"For the government this is nonnegotiable," San Miguel
said, calling the Brazilian company known as EBX "shameless"
for starting construction of the plant without the necessary

Town residents demanded that Bolivia's government guarantee
that bidding on a nearby giant iron-ore mining project, el
Mutun, be carried out in May as planned.

Just hours before the kidnapping, the government had said
it might further postpone bidding on el Mutun to correct
so-called irregularities in the competition, which had
initially drawn interest from five international companies.

The government of President Evo Morales notified the
attorney general's office of the abductions, but San Miguel
said Santa Cruz regional police were expected to end the