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Deadly Amazon clashes roil Peru

At least nine Peruvian police officers were killed Saturday as soldiers stormed an oil pumping station in the Amazon where Indian protesters were holding police hostage, officials said.
Indians block a road as tear gas fired by police smokes behind in Bagua Grande in Peru's northern province of Utcubamba on Friday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At least nine Peruvian police officers were killed Saturday as soldiers stormed an oil pumping station in the Amazon where Indian protesters were holding police hostage, the country’s defense minister said.

The deaths brought to 20 the number of police killed — some with spears — since security forces moved early Friday to break up a roadblock by indigenous Peruvians who oppose government moves to exploit oil and gas and other resources on their lands.

Protest leaders said at least 25 Indians, including three children, died in the clashes. Authorities confirmed only five civilian deaths, but said 109 people were injured.

The political violence is the Andean country’s worst since the Shining Path insurgency was quelled more than a decade ago, and it bodes ill for President Alan Garcia’s ambitious plans to boost Peru’s oil and gas output.

It began early Friday when security forces moved to break up a roadblock by some 5,000 natives that was mounted in early April. About 1,000 protesters seized police during the melee, taking more than three dozen hostage, officials said.

Twenty-two officers were rescued in Saturday’s storming of Station No. 6 at state-owned Petroperu in Imacita, in the jungle state of Amazonas, Defense Minister Antero Florez told the Radioprogramas radio network. He said seven officers were missing.

Among at least 45 casualties being treated at the main hospital in the Amazonas town of Bagua was local Indian leader Santiago Manuin, who received eight bullet wounds on Friday, said a nurse who identified herself only as “Sandra” for security reasons. She said no doctors could come to the phone because they were attending to the wounded.

Also Saturday, a judge ordered the arrest of protest group leader Alberto Pizango on sedition charges for allegedly inciting the violence, said the president of Peru’s supreme court, Javier Villa Stein.

Neither Pizango nor other senior members of his organization, the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, could immediately be reached by telephone.

On Friday, Pizango accused the government of “genocide” for attacking what he called a peaceful protest. Indians have been blocking roads, waterways and a state oil pipeline intermittently since April 9, demanding that Peru’s government repeal laws they say help foreign companies exploit their lands.

Battle over land, resources
The laws, decreed by Garcia as he implemented a Peru-U.S. free trade pact, open communal jungle lands and water resources to oil drilling, logging, mining and large-scale farming, Indian leaders and environmental groups say.

In addition to violating Peru’s constitution, indigenous groups add, Garcia is breaking international law by failing to obtain their consent for the projects.

Garcia defends the laws as necessary to help develop Peru.

The government owns all subsoil rights across the country and Garcia has vigorously sought to exploit its mineral resources.

Contract blocks for oil and gas exploration cover approximately 72 percent of Peru’s rain forest, according to a study published last year by Duke University.

And though Peru’s growth rate has led Latin America in recent years, Garcia’s critics say little wealth has trickled down in a country where roughly half the population is indigenous and the poverty rate tops 40 percent.

Indians say Garcia’s government does not consult them in good faith before signing contracts that could affect at least 30,000 Amazon Indians across six provinces.

Last month, Roman Catholic bishops in the region issued a communique calling the their complaints legitimate.

Protests prompted Garcia to declare a state of emergency on May 9, suspending some constitutional rights in four jungle provinces including Amazonas.

Because of the protests, Petroperu stopped pumping oil through its northern Peru pipeline from the jungle on April 26. Company spokesman Fernando Daffos said Friday that the interruption had cost it $448,000.

Also affected is the Argentine company Pluspetrol, which halted oil production in two jungle blocks in the Loreto region of northeastern Peru.