LIMA Two people were killed and 21 were injured on Tuesday when Peruvian police clashed with protesters opposed to a $5 billion gold mine planned by Newmont Mining, a health official in the northern region of Cajamarca said.
Most of the victims were being treated in the city of Cajamarca and the town of Celendin where the clashes occurred - near where the U.S. company plans to build the biggest mine in Peruvian history, the official, Reynaldo Nunez Campos, said.
"There are two dead in Celendin," he said on RPP radio.
The interior ministry said two police officers were shot by gun-carrying protesters, though it was not immediately clear if those killed were policemen.
Tuesday marked the first time rallies turned deadly in Cajamarca since protests started there late last year. Prime Minister Oscar Valdes said the government might suspend freedom of assembly to quell clashes between hundreds of police, soldiers and protesters.
"I don't think we Peruvians should tolerate bad apples who incite violence that ends up causing deaths," Valdes said.
President Ollanta Humala took office a year ago urging mediation to solve hundreds of disputes over spoils from natural-resource projects, but has since used emergency rules at least twice to end anti-mining protests in one of the world's top metals exporters. Critics say the harsher measures are symptomatic of his drift to the right.
Protesters have halted nearly all work at Newmont's Conga mine since November saying it would cause pollution, harm water supplies, and fail to bring enough local economic benefits.
The president of the region of Cajamarca, Gregorio Santos, who has been a strident critic of the proposed mine, accused Humala's government of putting big miners ahead of poor peasants left behind by the country's decade-long economic boom.
CRITICISM OF PRESIDENT
"This is the government we have - everything for miners and bullets for the people," he said on Twitter. "Humala, this is the cost of defending the savage neoliberal economic model and multinational miners. This is the cost of not keeping your word."
Humala has said the project is vital for Peru as it would generate thousands of jobs and huge tax revenues in one of Latin America's fastest-growing economies.
Once a firebrand leftist, Humala has irked traditional allies on the left by defending foreign investment and free trade since taking office a year ago.
Over the weekend, leaders of the protests, including Wilfredo Saavedra, a lawyer who once belonged to the Tupac Amaru insurgency, vowed to take tougher measures to stop the mine.
Protesters have expressed outrage that Humala gave permission a week ago to proceed with construction of the project after Newmont agreed to comply with a more stringent environmental mitigation plan recommended by outside experts. Humala's green light ended a seven-month-long impasse over the mine's future.
Newmont has agreed to build larger reservoirs that would replace two or more in a string of alpine lakes and guarantee year-round water supplies in towns that suffer during the dry season.
The company wasn't immediately available for comment on the violence.
On Monday, Humala responded to threats of new rallies by saying protesters would have to "face the consequences" of their actions.
Conga, which is partly owned by local miner Buenaventura, would produce between 580,000 and 680,000 ounces of gold annually.
Peru, which has vast mineral resources, is the world's second largest producer of copper and sixth of gold, but many mining communities suffer from widespread poverty and complain a decade-long economic boom has passed them by.
(Reporting By Lima Newsroom; Editing by Christopher Wilson and David Brunnstrom)