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Bolivia-Chile tensions rise over border incident

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Chile on Monday released three Bolivian soldiers arrested in January in an incident that has heightened tense relations between the two South American neighbors.

However the soldiers, who said they accidently crossed the remote border into northern Chile chasing smugglers, say they will stay in Chile and go to trial to prove their innocence.

Ties between Chile and Bolivia have been rocky at best ever since Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific ocean in an 1879-1884 war. The two countries have not had direct diplomatic ties since 1978.

"They had no alternative other than going to trial" to prove their innocence, the attorney for the soldiers, Roberto Celedon, told CNN Chile.

In La Paz, Bolivian President Evo Morales accused Chilean President Sebastian Pinera of a "cowardly attitude," calling the Bolivian soldiers "political hostages" amid a bid for "revenge" over his country's maritime claims.

Over the weekend Morales linked the case to Bolivia's quest for an ocean outlet. He wrote to Pinera and accused Chile of wanting to keep Bolivia "geographically amputated, economically weak and socially dependent" by "blocking our legitimate right to access to the sea."

Chile's Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno said he "lamented" Bolivia's lack of cooperation over the incident, and well as the Morales administration's use of "language that does not correspond to the respect that is owed to our countries."

According to Moreno, two of the soldiers -- Alex Choque, 20, and Augusto Cardenas, 19 -- were offered a deal: Chile would drop the case without admitting any guilt, and in exchange they would be kicked out of the country.

The third soldier -- Jose Fernandez, 18 -- was charged with illegally carrying a weapon and offered a shortened trial with a maximum penalty of expulsion.

The three soldiers refused the deal.

Moreno accused Bolivian authorities of prolonging the incident for political reasons.

Bolivia said it has taken the case to the United Nations, while Chile say that local judges will determine the fate of the soldiers.

In a similar incident, 14 armed Bolivian soldiers mistakenly crossed the border in June 2011 and were detained and deported by Chilean officials.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130225/bolivia-chile-tensions-rise-over-border-incident