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At least 18 killed in Peruvian Amazon clashes

At least 11 police officers and seven Indians were killed on Friday in violent protests in northern Peru over land rights in the Amazon rainforest, local officials said.

world Updated: Jun 06, 2009 11:10 IST

At least 11 police officers and seven Indians were killed on Friday in violent protests in northern Peru over land rights in the Amazon rainforest, local officials said.

The actual death toll remains unclear, with one protest leader claiming that 25 Indians were killed in the clashes, a figure not independently verified.

The protesters want decrees signed by President Alan Garcia in 2007 and 2008 easing restrictions on mining, oil drilling, wood harvesting and farming in the Amazon rainforest overturned.

Fighting broke out when some 400 police officers moved in to break up a roadblock stopping traffic along a highway near the town of Bagua, some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Lima.

Some 2,500 Indian protesters, many carrying spears, had been blocking the highway with tree trunks and boulders since last week.

Police cleared the road, but protesters retaliated by torching government buildings, looting offices and attacking the police station, local officials said.

At a late Friday press conference in Lima, Prime Minister Yehude Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas said the death toll was 11 police officers and two civilians, but said that five police officers and 108 civilians were wounded.

"Of the 11 murdered police officers, five were ambushed and killed with spears," said Simon.

The civilian death toll was confirmed to AFP by Olga Bobadilla from the local district attorney's office, and by John Delgado Cabanillas, the doctor on duty at the Bagua hospital.

Simon said that some 1,000 protesters took hostage 38 police officers protecting a crude oil pumping station outside of Bagua.

"They have been kidnapped and are hidden, and the natives have threatened to burn the station," Simon said.

The local Indian leader, Zeokan Campos, told RPP radio network that the hostages were taken in retaliation for the clashes earlier in the day.

President Garcia said that the protesters had threatened to cut the lines carrying natural gas out of the region. "What else can the government do but act with energy to impose order," Garcia said.

Around mid-day police officer told AFP that mobs were running rampant in Bagua.

"We are defending our police station," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The mob wants to attack the police station and is attacking several buildings. We are awaiting reinforcements."

Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde said the government decreed a curfew for Bagua and other towns in the region.

Some 65 indigenous groups in Peru's Amazon rainforest have been protesting the Garcia decrees since early April. They are also demanding to be consulted on issues concerning their land.

"We represent 1,350 communities, the equivalent of 600,000 Amazon Indians, and we ask the government to consider 25 million hectares (62 million acres) as ancestral territory," protest leader Alberto Pizango recently said.

"We feel that the government... has always treated us as second-class citizens," he said.

Following the Friday violence, Pizango claimed that 25 people had been killed, and accused Garcia of "genocide" and for "perpetuating the worst slaughter of our people in the last 20 years."

Our protest "was peaceful," Pizango said. "We are natives who are demanding respect for our territory and environment."

An earlier protest in August 2008 ended when mediators agreed to form a study group to look into ways of overturning Garcia's decrees. As there was no answer, the protest re-started in April.

Protesters include thousands of Indians in five of Peru's Amazon provinces, from Cuzco in southern Peru north to the borders with Ecuador and Colombia.

Over the past weeks protesters have taken over airports, blocked bridges and highways, prevented navigation along several rivers, and stopped oil extracted from the Amazon from being shipped out of the region.

First Published: Jun 06, 2009 10:14 IST