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Peru clashes leave 31 dead

Leon and Kraul are special correspondents.

The death toll from a bloody clash between Peruvian police and indigenous protesters over the rights to natural resources rose to at least 31 Saturday, including nine police officers reportedly taken hostage by demonstrators at an oil pumping station.

According to official sources, 22 police officers and nine protesters were killed Friday as security forces tried to clear a highway in the Amazon region of northeastern Peru that demonstrators had blocked on and off for weeks.

Among those killed were nine of 38 police officers reportedly taken hostage at a pumping station operated by state-owned PetroPeru. Most of the other police officers escaped, officials said.

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But as the government issued an arrest warrant for indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, whom it blamed for the violence, activists insisted that many more protesters had been killed than listed in the official toll.

Officials declared a 60-day state of emergency in three eastern provinces and a 3 p.m.-to-dawn curfew in Bagua, the epicenter of the violence.

Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas said 73 people had been arrested in connection with the incidents and that today would be a day of national mourning for the victims. She called on protesters to return to their homes and return rifles allegedly taken from police.

The violence, which also has left 155 wounded, came after weeks of peaceful protest by several indigenous communities that claim the Amazon as ancestral lands. They are demanding that President Alan Garcia rescind mining, petroleum and logging rights given to private companies.

The protests have blocked highways and waterways for weeks and forced the closing of a PetroPeru oil pipeline. The day before the violence, Garcia announced that his patience with the protesters had come to an end and ordered his ministers to retake control.

Violence broke out after 650 police officers were sent to clear the Fernando Belaunde Highway, which connects the Amazon basin with the highlands and coastal areas.

Who started the violence is under dispute. An indigenous umbrella group called Aidesep said the first gunfire came from police helicopters. But Interior Minister Cabanillas accused Pizango of inciting protesters to violence.

In a statement Saturday, Garcia said Peru had “suffered a subversive aggression against democracy and against the national police. We should respond with serenity and firmness.”

Several human rights and environmental activist groups, many of which had representatives in the area when the clashes began, said the police provoked the violence and that the number of protesters killed is far higher than stated.

The Roman Catholic Church, the national human rights commission and the public defenders office have launched an investigation of the incidents and whereabouts of about 35 protesters who the indigenous groups say are missing.


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