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Peru criticized over Repsol working in tribal area

* Human rights group says exploration would hurt tribes

* Government has given initial approval to plan

LIMA, April 22 (Reuters) - A human rights group has criticized Peru's government for granting Spanish oil giant Repsol REP.MC initial approval to build 279 miles (450 km) of seismic lines and 152 heliports in a portion of the Amazon basin believed to be inhabited by tribes that shun contact with outsiders.

Peru has the third highest concentration of tribes living in voluntary isolation after Brazil and New Guinea, and human rights groups say big oil and gas projects on lands they use would threaten their survival.

“The presence of this company puts these groups at an enormous risk,” said David Hill, of the London-based Survival International.

Rain forest trees would be removed and dynamite would be blasted to build the seismic lines, which are used to explore for petroleum by taking readings of underground deposits after blasts.

The project, located in an area known as Lot 39, was granted initial approval by the environment ministry and the government’s indigenous affairs department, INDEPA.

It is now being reviewed by the mining ministry for final approval.

Repsol officials did not return several calls seeking comment.

Peru’s government has angered critics by denying the existence of untouched tribes in the past, and has been slower than countries such as Brazil in recognizing protected areas for them.

Iris Cardenas, the Mining Ministry’s director of environmental affairs, told Reuters the area had been thoroughly explored by INDEPA, but the state agency has yet to prove that any unknown tribes live there.

She added that the project was only an extension of an existing one, and that only small trees would be axed.

“This is not labeled as an Indian reservation but we’re going out of our way to make sure that everyone follows procedure,” Cardenas said. “We have no reason not to approve it,” she said, adding that ministry would finish reviewing it by the end of the month.

Last year, growing pressure by Amazon tribes -- who protested plans for energy exploration in deadly clashes -- forced the government to throw out a series of laws that would have lured more foreign investment to broad swaths of the Amazon basin. (Reporting by Luis Andres Henao, Editing by Terry Wade and Lisa Shumaker)