LIMA (Reuters) - A fifth protester has died following two days of clashes with police, officials said on Thursday, as critics said President Ollanta Humala's crackdown on a rally against a $5 billion gold mine proposed by Newmont had gone too far.
Humala, a former military officer who says the mine would generate thousands of jobs and huge tax revenues in the northern region of Cajamarca, has not spoken about the violence this week - even as his ministers suspended freedom of assembly to quell the rallies and opposition lawmakers urged police to show more restraint.
The clashes this week, the first in eight months of protests against the mine, are likely to increase calls for Humala to replace Prime Minister Oscar Valdes when Peruvian leaders normally shuffle their Cabinets around July 28, Peru's Independence Day.
Valdes, who was one of Humala's instructors in the military, led a crackdown on protests against the mine in November. At the time, he was interior minister and was later promoted.
Left-wing leader Marco Arana, a soft-spoken former Roman Catholic priest who has rallied demonstrators to stop construction of the biggest mine in Peruvian history, was released from police custody after video aired on local TV showed him being detained and beaten by police on Wednesday.
Arana is widely thought to have presidential ambitions. He and his allies on the left say Humala has drifted too far to the right since taking office and has put the interests of global miners ahead of poor peasants. Opponents of the mine say it would cause pollution, hurt water supplies and fail to generate enough local economic benefits.
Humala took office a year ago urging mediation to solve hundreds of disputes nationwide over natural resources, but has lost patience with protesters and has suspended civil liberties to curb demonstrations at least three times.
Members of Humala's party have blamed Arana and another strident opponent of the mine - Gregorio Santos, the president of the Cajamarca region - for inciting violence at a rally of 2,000 people on Tuesday where protesters threw rocks and vandalized public buildings. The rallies spilled over into Wednesday.
Official data shows at least 15 people have died during Humala's term in protests over natural resources, compared with 174 who were killed in similar circumstances from 2006 to 2011 on the watch of his predecessor, Alan Garcia.
U.S.-based Newmont's project in Cajamarca, known as Conga, is partly owned by local miner Buenaventura and would produce between 580,000 and 680,000 ounces of gold annually. Conga would essentially replace the nearby Yanacocha mine run by Newmont and Buenaventura that is nearing the end of its life.
Protesters have expressed outrage that Humala gave the miner 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.
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. It started work on those reservoirs over the weekend after nearly all construction work on the mine had been stopped since November because of protests.
The company's local office said on Tuesday the violence was unfortunate, but said it was "reaffirming its commitment to Cajamarca."
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 Terry Wade; Editing by Vicki Allen