Bolivia to counter-sue Chile over disputed waters

La Paz (AFP) - Bolivian President Evo Morales said Tuesday his government will counter-sue Chile for the rights to the disputed Silala river, in an escalating row over water before the International Court of Justice.

Morales, who claims the Silala is in fact a spring, hit back a day after Chile announced it had filed suit against Bolivia at the ICJ over its waters, which cross the border between the two South American countries.

"Bolivia is going to counter-sue. Why counter-sue? Because they illegally take our water. In common terms, they steal our water and then they sue us. What kind of neighbor is that?" he said at a press conference.

The battle over the Silala is part of a larger dispute between landlocked Bolivia, which wants access to the Pacific Ocean, and Chile, which has nearly 4,700 kilometers (more than 2,900 miles) of coastline.

Bolivia lost its access to the sea to Chile in the War of the Pacific in the 19th century, and has stepped up efforts to get it back under Morales -- including with a separate, pending case before the ICJ.

The Bolivian leader has sought to use the Silala as a bargaining chip, threatening to reduce the flow of its water into Chile's parched Atacama desert and impose fees for its use.

He says the Silala, which originates in Bolivia, crosses the border only because it has been diverted from its natural course.

Chile for its part asked the Hague-based court to declare the Silala an "international river" and affirm its right to its waters.

Morales, a leftist union leader who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, says Chile should pay Bolivia for using the Silala at the Chuquicamata mine, the world's largest open-pit copper mine.