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Three Bolivian ministers kidnapped by townspeople

By Staff
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LA PAZ, Bolivia, Apr 19 (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.

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 yesterday.

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 (50 kms) 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 permits.

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 standoff.

REUTERS SRS PC0955

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