Bolivia to buy Chinese jets to battle drugs
A PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia plans to buy six Chinese light military aircraft worth nearly $58 million to fight drug traffickers in the world's No. 3 cocaine producer, leftist President Evo Morales said on Saturday.
"Last week we issued a supreme decree to ... acquire six K-8 aircraft from China," said Morales in a speech in La Paz to mark the 52nd anniversary of the Bolivian air force.
Morales said his government decided to acquire the K-8, a jet trainer that can be used as a light attack aircraft, after the U.S. government blocked the country from buying similar planes from the Czech Republic.
Morales' main regional ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is also buying Chinese K-8 to be used to pursue cocaine flights. They replace a purchase of Brazilian Super Tucanos blocked by a U.S. arms embargo.
Bolivia, which is the third largest producer of the white powder drug after Colombia and Peru, has been at odds with Washington after Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and anti-drug agents on charges of conspiring to overthrow him.
Since taking office in 2006 Morales, an Aymara Indian who once farmed coca, has forged ahead with controversial reforms to help the poor Indian majority in the Andean nation.
The coca leaf is the main ingredient for cocaine, but Indians in Bolivia and across the Andes use it in rituals and chew it for its medicinal and nutritional properties.
Morales also said Bolivia is negotiating the acquisition of an Antonov from Russia's aircraft manufacturer Ilyushin, which will be used as presidential plane, and that the company is considering building an airplane repair hub in the country.
Last month, Morales unveiled a plan to buy a Chinese telecommunications satellite worth up to $300 million.
(Reporting by Eduardo Garcia, editing by Vicki Allen)