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Peru protest leader takes refuge

9 June 09 12:29 GMT

A Peruvian indigenous leader linked to protests in the Amazon region has sought refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima, Peru's prime minister says.

Alberto Pizango is accused of sedition, conspiracy and rebellion, after clashes in the north of the country with the army that left more than 30 dead.

A curfew has now been imposed in the area, after what Mr Pizango called "the slaughter of our people".

The protests arose over plans for gas and oil exploration.

Indigenous people object to government plans to open up what they consider their ancestral lands.

Prime Minister Yehude Simon announced during an address to members of Congress that Mr Pizango had sought refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy.

An arrest warrant was issued for the indigenous leader on Saturday.

As well as the 30 protesters, 24 police officers are reported to have been killed in the worst clashes for at least a decade.

The violence erupted on Friday after 2,500 indigenous people - many of them carrying spears and machetes - protested over the drilling plans.

Riots ensued after about 400 riot police tried to clear a roadblock, near the town of Bagua Grande, 1,400km (870 miles) north of the capital Lima.

Dozens of police officers were taken hostage, and nine were reportedly killed by protesters as the army moved in on Saturday to restore order.

'Bodies hidden'

Many of the protesters who had been hiding in the hills - fearing reprisals from the security forces - are now returning to the towns, reports the BBC's Dan Collyns in Bagua Grande.

About 750 native Amazonians have sought refuge in one church building - and new arrivals are being cheered by crowds of local people outside, many of whom are donating food and clothing.

The towns are now under military-imposed curfews. But local people say the measures are preventing them from looking for the dead.

Eyewitnesses report seeing bodies burnt or dumped in a river.

"The police were shooting to kill, but that's not all, because they hid the dead," one man told the BBC.

"They took them to the ravine and threw them from the helicopter in plastic bags. There are also dead on the river banks. Up there beyond the hill, there are more, as if it were a common grave."

Our correspondent says there is no firm evidence to corroborate these allegations, which have been roundly rejected by President Alan Garcia, as no bodies have been discovered.

But human rights lawyers in the region told the BBC hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.

The Peruvian government has launched a TV campaign portraying the Amazon natives as savages who killed unarmed and defenceless police officers they had taken hostage.

The president has blamed foreign forces - widely understood to mean Bolivia and Venezuela - for inciting the unrest, saying on Sunday they did not want Peru to use its "natural resources for the good, growth and quality of life of our people".

Clash over resources

Fuel and transport blockades have disrupted Peru's Amazon region for almost two months.

The indigenous tribes want to force Congress to repeal laws that encourage foreign mining in the rainforest.

"Our forest is like our market," local woman Clementina Paatayui told the BBC.

"We get everything we need from it. The direction this government is going in, all we will have left to sell is the water and the air. That's why we protested - because we are thinking of our long-term future."

But the government says it has guaranteed 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of forest for its native people.

It insists all Peruvians have the right to benefit from the country's oil and gas, our correspondent says.

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