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Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 19:07 UK

Peru polarised after deadly clashes

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Bagua Chica, Peru

boy playing with burnt out car after the clashes
Indigenous Amazonians had blocked roads and facilities for two months

The removal by Peruvian riot police of thousands of native Amazonian protesters from a road they were blocking was the worst violence the country had seen in a decade.

Some 54 people are thought to have died - among them 14 police officers.

In what appeared to be a revenge attack 10 more police officers were killed by their indigenous captors.

More than 100 indigenous protesters still cannot be accounted for.

It was the culmination of two months of massive rallies and blockades across Peru's Amazon - an area that is vital to the country's economy.

The protests threatened to disrupt both national energy supplies and exports.

But it was also the tragic consequence of Peru's failure to decide the true place of its indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest and their role in this multicultural nation.

Awajun leader, Leoncio Calla
I will never forget what happened that Friday - it was a massacre
Leoncio Calla

The government decided to act after weeks of deadlocked talks.

The brutal violence has left both sides embittered, but it has been made worse by accusations that the government is covering up the true number of dead protesters.

Many eyewitnesses are too afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.

"I will never forget what happened that Friday - it was a massacre", says Leoncio Calla, a leader from a native Awajun community.

"According to a preliminary count we have more than 150 disappeared," he says, explaining how each village reported who they had missing.

"The dead were only recovered from the road but many more were in the hills, those bodies have disappeared."

"It's a matter of time, once we return to our communities, and we see who is missing, then we will find out how many dead there really are."

The government, which says all Peruvians should be able to benefit from the country's oil and gas, said the Amazonians had killed defenceless police officers after taking them hostage.

The president has blamed foreign forces - widely understood to mean Bolivia and Venezuela - for inciting unrest.

'Disappearances'

A church building in Bagua Grande and other places of refuge are now filling up with protesters who hid in the hills after the conflict.

BBC map

One of them, Clementina Paayatui, told the BBC the protesters had been peacefully blocking the road at a place called the Devil's Curve when the police arrived and began "shooting, killing people as if they were dogs".

While exact figures for the disappeared are still unclear the rumours are insistent.

Eyewitnesses say helicopters carried bodies away to be dumped in the nearby River Maranon.

Areas of land near the road where pitched battles were fought have been scorched, fuelling suspicions that the bodies had been burnt.

Whatever President Alan Garcia's vision of progress and modernity is, this cannot be it.

The Minister for Women and Social Development, Carmen Vildoso, resigned in protest at the government's handling of the crisis.

DOG IN THE MANGER

In October 2007, President Alan Garcia published a series of articles trying to explain what he saw as the main cause of poverty.


He called it the Dog in the Manger syndrome.

Mr Garcia argued that communally owed land in many Peruvian communities led to an inefficient use of natural resources because it was a free resource open to everybody.

Soon afterwards, Congress allowed President Garcia to issue decrees encouraging oil and gas extraction, commercial forestry, and large-scale agriculture in the Amazon.

Indigenous groups see those decrees as threatening their ancestral lands and way of life.

The situation is more polarised than ever, with the government calling indigenous protesters extremists and their leader, Alberto Pizango, being charged with sedition and rebellion.

He has been granted asylum by the Nicaraguan government, after seeking refuge in their embassy in Lima.

Meanwhile the indigenous movement accuses the government of committing crimes against humanity.

"I see an indigenous population who say: 'Peru doesn't consider us to be Peruvians, it thinks that the jungle is for other people, that we don't exist, that it's empty'", says human-rights lawyer Ernesto de la Jara.

"They've shown that this attitude cannot work."

Many accuse the government of failing to consult the native communities about a series of laws which they say threaten their ancestral lands.

But officials say 12 million hectares (46,300 square miles) have been set aside for native people, and another 15 million hectares for national reserves.

However, the government may be forced to soften its stance and allow the debate of some of the controversial laws in the Peruvian congress.

While the families of police officers and indigenous people alike mourn their deaths, many Peruvians are calling for an independent investigation into what happened and for the dialogue to begin again.


5 July: This is a corrected version of an article that originally said 54 people were known to have died. The correspondent accepts his wording was too definitive at the time and it has been changed to "thought to". Inquiries subsequent to the publication of this article by the public ombudsman in Peru found that 10 civilians and 23 police officers had lost their lives. Another officer is still missing.



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SEE ALSO
Peru clashes: Readers' accounts
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'Many missing' after Peru riots
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Peru army imposes Amazon curfews
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Deadly clashes in Peru's Amazon
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Peru army call for Amazon protest
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Peru country profile
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