Mexican president pushes back against latest challenge to planned airport

MEXICO CITY, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday shrugged off the latest legal glitch for his plans to turn a military base near Mexico City into a commercial airport after a judge issued a new suspension order against the project.

The construction in Santa Lucia is meant to replace a part-built $13 billion airport on the capital’s eastern flank, which Lopez Obrador canceled on Oct. 29 on the back of a controversial referendum, just a few weeks before taking office in December.

Lopez Obrador said during a regular news conference that more than 80 legal proceedings against the Santa Lucia project had been launched, calling them “a legal sabotage.”

“We are asking the judiciary that - in accordance with the law - they resolve this because those are tactics to delay (the construction),” Lopez Obrador told reporters, suggesting that the airport could even be finished ahead of time.

“We hope that this will be resolved soon,” he added.

The government wants the Santa Lucia airport to go in service by mid-2021, a target that many engineers view with skepticism.

According to a document seen by Reuters, a Mexico City judge halted construction in Santa Lucia pending the outcome of a legal bid to block the project presented by a group of civil rights campaigners.

The judge’s ruling was leaked to media this week.

Santa Lucia lies 29 miles (47 km) north of the current Benito Juarez International Airport. Critics of the project say the site is too far from the capital and will lead to conflicting flight paths with the present facility.

The now-halted airport construction on the dried-out bed of Lake Texcoco was the biggest public works project of former President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Lopez Obrador argued that the Texcoco airport was riddled with corruption and geologically unsound. However, his abrupt decision to cancel the project rattled investor confidence and sparked a sell-off in Mexican financial assets.

The president also plans to upgrade the Benito Juarez airport as well as another one in the nearby city of Toluca. (Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher Editing by Dave Graham and Cynthia Osterman)