Bolivia's president orders army to natural gas fields

Soldiers guarded natural gas fields and refineries after Bolivia's leftist president ordered the nationalization of the sector, threatening to evict foreign companies unless they give Bolivia control over production within six months.

President Evo Morales announcement Monday fulfills an election promise to increase state control over Bolivia's natural resources, which he says have been "looted" by foreign companies. It also solidifies his role along with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro in Latin America's new axis of leftist leaders opposed to U.S. and corporate influence in the region.

About 100 soldiers took control of the Palmasola refinery in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, some carrying assault rifles, while others carried anti-riot gear. Most stood in front of the gates of the refinery, which is run by Brazil's Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.

"Our mission is to guarantee the normal operations" of the facility, said unit commander Capt. Jorge Lenz.

Soldiers and engineers with Bolivia's state-owned oil company were ordered to installations and fields tapped by foreign companies, including Britain's BG Group PLC and BP PLC, Petrobras, Spanish-Argentine Repsol YPF SA, France's Total SA and U.S.-based Exxon Mobil Corp.

The companies have six months to agree to new contracts or leave Bolivia.

"The looting by the foreign companies has ended," Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, said in a speech from the San Alberto field in Santa Cruz operated by Petrobras in association with Repsol and Total SA.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said troops were sent to 56 locations around the country, reports the AP.

I.L.