Bolivia's Defense Chiefs Ousted in Missile Scandal

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

LA PAZ, Bolivia, Jan. 18 -- A scandal in Bolivia over surface-to-air missiles prompted the defense minister's resignation and the army chief's dismissal Tuesday, plunging the military into a political crisis days before socialist president-elect Evo Morales is to be sworn into office.

The outgoing interim president, Eduardo Rodriguez, said he had accepted the resignation of Defense Minister Gonzalo Mendez, and fired Gen. Marcelo Antezana over apparent irregularities in the destruction in the United States of a batch of Chinese-made missiles in October.

"I have relieved the commander of the army of his duties and accepted the defense minister's resignation," Rodriguez told reporters after a cabinet meeting Tuesday.

At the height of campaigning for last month's presidential elections, Morales denounced the destruction of the 28 to 30 Chinese HN-5 shoulder-fired missiles, the only arms of their kind in the military's arsenal.

Antezana, the army chief, told reporters that Washington initiated the drive to destroy the missiles because it feared Morales would win the presidency of the South American country.

He later retracted his remarks.

Morales, who will be sworn into office Sunday, has lodged a legal complaint over the transfer, accusing the president of "putting Bolivia under foreign domination."

Rodriguez said that he had authorized the destruction of the missiles, but not their transfer to the United States.

Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism party, has emerged as one of Latin America's strongest critics of the Bush administration. He opposes a U.S.-promoted hemispheric trade pact, arguing that it disproportionately benefits the wealthy, and opposes U.S. efforts to eradicate coca plants.

Street protests led by Bolivia's Indian majority have toppled two Bolivian presidents in the past two years, and helped to propel Morales to a sweeping election victory. His supporters see Morales -- who will be the nation's first indigenous president -- as a chance to reverse centuries of exploitation by foreign governments and multinational corporations.

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