Protesters occupy natural gas station in Bolivia

Friday, February 2, 2007; 9:35 PM

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Demonstrators seized control of a natural gas facility in Bolivia on Friday in protest over the government's nationalization of the energy industry, which they say has not gone far enough, local radio reported.

The protesters, who have blocked roads in the country's gas-rich southeast for the past five days, stormed into the pipeline control station run by Transredes, operated by energy major Royal Dutch Shell, local radio Fides said.

"We're going to keep up our protest until (state oil company) YPFB is rebuilt, so it serves only the Bolivian people and not the multinationals," said one of the protest leaders, Mirko Orgaz.

The leftist government of President Evo Morales nationalized Bolivia's energy industry in May 2006, but the protesters say he has failed to make good on vows to return to state control several small gas fields in the region.

They also want the government to relocate YPFB's exploration and exploitation unit to the town of Camiri, which lies some 1,000 km (620 miles) southeast of the administrative capital, La Paz.

"They want YPFB to be overhauled, and that's already on the way, that's what all Bolivians want, but what has been destroyed in 20 years can't be rebuilt in just one," Morales said during a visit to the Chapare region in central Bolivia.

Morales -- a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- took office a year ago on pledges to boost state control over natural resources, and invest the extra revenue to ease poverty in South America's poorest country.

Under the nationalization, foreign energy companies with operations in Bolivia signed new operating deals that give YPFB control of production. The government says the state will see a bigger share of profits, though several of the companies have disputed that.

Shell is in talks to sell a 16-percent stake in natural gas pipeline company Transredes to the Bolivian government. The share transfer would allow YPFB, which has a 34-percent stake in Transredes, to control the firm.

Friday's protest led Transredes to shut down the pipeline valves for safety reasons, Fides reported.

The protest measure will not affect exports of natural gas to Brazil and Argentina -- the main buyers of the fuel from Bolivia, which has the largest natural gas reserves in South America after Venezuela.

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