Civil groups backed by a local governor last week occupied Bolivia’s principal international airport at Santa Cruz and disrupted airline service by attempting to extort landing fee payments.

Bolivian national authorities on October 18 ordered the military to intervene after several international airlines reported encounters with armed groups demanding $2,000 cash payments as landing fees.

An Aerolineas Argentinas flight is reported to have paid the sum to avoid a major service disruption. But an American Airlines flight is said to have departed without its passengers on October 16 rather than pay the fee.

Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, a critic of Bolivian President Evo Morales, justified the airport takeover, saying in a public address that the national air traffic control agency’s “corruption levels are just unsustainable".

Costas also believes the relatively prosperous Santa Cruz region should have more autonomy over regulating commercial aviation airports.

Santa Cruz's Viru Viru international airport returned to normal operations over the weekend, although a small military contingent continues to control its access.

Bolivia’s three international airports -- Viru Viru, Cochabamba and La Paz -- are operated by TBI, which is owned by the Spanish Abertis and Aena groups.