Coca growers ambush Bolivian security forces, take hostages

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Coca growers in Bolivia ambushed soldiers and police who were destroying illicit crops used to make cocaine, killing one and taking hostages, the government said on Sunday.

Security forces were using machetes to clear coca fields in the northern Apolo region of the country when they were attacked late Saturday night, the government said in a statement. One officer was shot in the chest and killed, 16 were injured and an unknown number taken hostage, according to the statement.

"The government has instructed the police to quickly deploy reinforcements to the scene," it said.

Coca cultivation in Bolivia, the world's third-biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia, fell for the second consecutive year in 2012 as the government stepped up eradication efforts, according to an annual survey compiled by the United Nations and the Bolivian government.

Cultivation of coca bushes in Bolivia fell by around 7 percent to roughly 25,300 hectares, following a 12 percent drop in 2011, according to the survey released in August.

Bolivians have chewed raw coca leaves for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness. Coca is not illegal in Bolivia, but the government aims to eradicate excess crops that could be diverted to illicit markets.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Stacey Joyce)