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13 killed in Peru as Indians against drilling clash with police

Protests by indigenous communities over oil drilling and mining in the Peruvian Amazon region turned violent Friday, leaving at least 13 people dead in clashes with police and subsequent rioting.

According to local officials, nine police officers and four Indians were killed in an early morning confrontation on a road between Jaen and Bagua in northern Peru and in the protests that followed. The Bagua public defender’s office said 45 people were injured.

Violence continued throughout much of the day. Rioters sacked city offices, the local headquarters of President Alan Garcia’s political party and 50 stores.

Some reports said the death toll was even higher. One said protesters were holding 38 police officers hostage and threatening to kill them unless the police withdrew.

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The Health Ministry said it was sending emergency teams of doctors and paramedics to the area, raising concern that the casualty totals were far higher than officially reported.

Tensions between the indigenous communities and the government have been boiling since early April, when tribal members began protesting Garcia’s granting of mineral development rights to foreign companies. Half a dozen indigenous communities claim the jungle as their ancestral lands.

The government regards mineral and oil resources as national property that is crucial to Peru’s economic development. The nation’s booming mining industry has been essential to its rapid growth in recent years.

Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas declared a curfew Friday, but it wasn’t clear whether police had control of the area.

The clash between protesters and security forces occurred after the government sent 650 police officers to clear protesters from the Fernando Belaunde Highway, a main thoroughfare in the Amazon region.

Police officers said the Indians fired first. Cabanillas said Indians took weapons from the officers and used them against members of the force.

There were reports of protesters dragging the bodies of police officers through the streets.

Spokesmen for the umbrella indigenous group known as AIDESEP said in Lima, the capital, that it was the police who set off the violence.

“We are sad and outraged by how the government has assassinated our brothers who were struggling peacefully,” said Agustina Mayan, an AIDESEP spokeswoman. “Today the government has persisted in hunting down and kidnapping us.”

Protests by the indigenous communities against oil and gas exploration have intensified in recent weeks, with the closing of several roads and waterways.

In mid-May, demonstrators succeeded in shutting down an oil pipeline operated by PetroPeru by taking over a pump station.

The government attempted to negotiate with the tribes, but Garcia lost patience and called on Cabinet ministers to “assume your responsibilities.”

“This is why we have been elected, not to wash our hands, while we are left with no gas and petroleum,” Garcia said. “Is that what people want?”

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Kraul and Leon are special correspondents.


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