Thousands of native people blocked the highway in the Amazon jungle in northern Peru. (Photo: Reuters)
Lima, Peru - President Alan Garcia labored Saturday to contain Peru's worst political violence in years, as nine more police officers were killed in a bloody standoff with Amazon Indians fighting his efforts to exploit oil and gas on their native lands.
The new deaths brought to 22 the number of police killed - seven with spears - since security forces moved early Friday to break up a roadblock manned by 5,000 protesters.
Protest leaders said at least 30 Indians, including three children, died in the clashes. Authorities said they could confirm only nine civilian deaths, but cabinet chief Yehude Simon told reporters that 155 people had been injured, about a third of them with bullet wounds.
He announced a 3 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew in the affected region and said authorities had made 72 arrests.
"The government was required to take these measures, not only for the president of the republic but for all 28 million Peruvians," Simon said of breaking up the protests, which blocked the flow of oil and gas out of the Amazon and prevented food and supplies from coming in. "We've all been affected one way or another by the protest ... when they take over highways and strategic points that can affect the national economy."
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 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 protesters 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.
Simon said the nine killed were taken more than a mile from the station and slain while an army general was negotiating protesters' retreat from the facility.
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.
Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillos said Pizango had fled, likely to neighboring Bolivia where the government is dominated by the country's indigenous majority.
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.
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 in Durham, North Carolina.
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 statement calling the 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.
Associated Press Writers Tamy Higa in Lima and Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.