Thursday, December 22, 2005

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Charges that the United States secretly removed Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles from Bolivia are complicating already tense relations between Washington and Bolivia’s left-wing president-elect.

Evo Morales, an Indian and former coca farmer who has pledged to end U.S. drug eradication programs in the country, was formally declared yesterday as the winner of Sunday’s presidential election with 54 percent of the vote.

Mr. Morales, leader of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), was quoted in press reports this week as saying he would evict U.S. military advisers from Bolivia and punish those responsible for the removal from the country this year of 28 HN-SA hand-held surface-to-air missiles (SAM).

The missiles are similar to the U.S. “Stinger” missiles used by Afghan insurgents with devastating effectiveness against low-flying Russian aircraft in the 1980s.

“I will press for a full investigation to establish responsibilities. We cannot tolerate international intervention,” Mr. Morales was quoted as saying of the missile incident.

Charges that Bolivia’s military permitted the United States to spirit the missiles out of the country roiled the closing weeks of the election campaign, beginning when MAS officials presented a leaked Bolivian intelligence report to the legislature.

The subsequently published report said U.S. military officers operating out of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz had removed the missiles between May and June of this year, working directly with Bolivian army commanders.

MAS cited military sources saying the missiles, packed in several metallic cases, were boarded onto an unmarked C-130 operated by the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section and flown to the United States.

At the time, MAS-led street protests had toppled the government of former President Carlos Mesa and mobs were threatening to invade government installations in La Paz.

“They were afraid the missiles could be used against the U.S. aircraft in the event that they had to evacuate their personnel or intervene,” said one source close to the deal.

In a letter to the legislature released last week, army chief Gen. Marcelo Antezana acknowledged the missiles had been flown out of the country in June but denied prior knowledge.

“Up to the present date, it cannot be determined who … authorized the transfer of those missiles out of the country for their deactivation,” his letter said.

“I was not consulted and did not authorize the movement out of the country of such material since our initial agreement only establishes their custody and possible deactivation at the depots of the American Embassy located in the city of El Alto,” a suburb of the capital.

The letter also said five inoperable missiles had been returned and suggested procedures be initiated “to request the immediate return of the remaining missiles without being deactivated.”

A U.S. Embassy official referred all inquires on the matter to the Bolivian government.

Further confirmation was provided two days before the election by former Defense Minister Gonzalo Arredondo, who issued a press statement on Friday saying the U.S. Embassy in La Paz had urged the government to give up the missiles last year.

“Officers attached to the military section of the embassy came to my office around August 2004, expressing preoccupation over intelligence that there were terrorist groups interested in anti-aircraft missiles with the characteristics of those we had,” the former minister said.

Mr. Arredondo said the envoys offered no specific details about the terrorist organizations or their plans. “It appeared more like a precautionary measure. They talked about the missiles being sold on the black market and suggested that they should be deactivated,” he said.

He said the government refused to go along at that time for fear of “weakening our national security.”

When Mr. Morales first made his accusations last month, Gen. Antezana said that the missiles had been deactivated as part of a routine “annual disposal of obsolete equipment.” He denied that they been taken out of the country.

But defense records made public last week show that the $2 million SAM systems acquired from China in 1995 were well maintained and had 10 years of service remaining.

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