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Bolivian President Evo Morales started the new year with a bang, celebrating the departure of French-owned water utility Aguas de Illimani from Bolivia. The move comes after a massive public uprising against the company in 2005.

In a ceremony at the presidential palace in La Paz, Morales officially bid farewell to the affiliate of French transnational Suez. Aguas de Illimani controlled the water for capital city La Paz and its poorer satellite, El Alto, since a former public utility was privatized in 1997.

“Water cannot be turned over to private business,” Morales said. “It must remain a basic service, with participation of the state so that water service can be provided almost for free.”

Aguas de Illimani’s high rates and a reluctance to expand service into the fringes of the twin cities prompted protests in El Alto in 2005 demanding the water system be returned to state control.

Morales also called for other foreign companies operating in privatized sectors to be returned to state control, including La Paz power utility ElectroPaz, owned by Spanish energy company Iberdrola, and telecommunications company Entel, a subsidiary of Telecom Italia.

Aguas de Illimani will be replaced by a newly formed public utility that Germany, Spain and Venezuela have together donated US$5.5 million to get up and running.

Bolivian Water Minister Abel Mamani, a leader of the 2005 El Alto protests, said Thursday the new company will need an investment of at least US$35 million over its first five years to expand service to the parts of the La Paz-El Alto metro area most in need of water.

(With files from Agence France-Presse)