updated 9/7/2004 11:29:23 PM ET 2004-09-08T03:29:23

Hundreds of angry farmers seized Guatemala's largest hydroelectric dam Tuesday, threatening to shut off power to large parts of the country unless the government agrees to return nearby lands to them.

The farmers forced their way into the Chixoy dam complex in the northern province of Alta Verapaz, seized the control room and were trying to force employees to close the gates that supply water to the facility's turbines.

"Hundreds of farmworkers have cornered the manager in the control room, and are pressuring him to close the gates," said Fredy Lopez, spokesman for the National Electricity Institute, which runs the facility.

President Oscar Berger urged the farmers to hand over the facility. "This is no way to negotiate or solve conflicts," Berger said.

The farmers are demanding the institute give them land around the dam. The agency expropriated that land _ and gave residents other plots _ in order to secure the dam's watershed and catchment basin.

However, the estimated 500 farmers say they were given land of inferior quality in compensation.

The takeover of the plant, which supplies about 60 percent of the country's electricity, comes on the eve of a deadline set six months ago by various peasant groups for the solution of the problem.

The events at Chixoy, about 75 miles north of Guatemala City, appear unrelated to the deaths last week of 3 policemen and 7 farmers when police ousted squatters from a private farm they had seized about 110 miles south of the capital.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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