LIMA (Reuters) - A government negotiating team sent to Peru’s southern copper belt to calm rising tensions at a Chinese-owned mine was repelled by indigenous protesters who hurled rocks at its helicopter on Wednesday, a government official said.
Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra’s government had tasked the team, led by three ministers, with finding a peaceful end to a 51-day road blockade that has choked off access to Chinese miner MMG Ltd’s Las Bambas mine, one of the country’s largest copper producers.
However, protesters used slingshots to hurl rocks at the ministers’ helicopter when it arrived at the blockade, where they had hoped to restart talks with representatives of the indigenous community of Fuerabamba, Development Minister Paola Bustamante, part of the team, said in a televised interview.
Fuerabamba, an Andean village relocated to make way for the mine, started the blockade in early February to demand compensation from MMG for transporting copper from Las Bambas on a road on its farmland. MMG has said it is open to talks.
However, Fuerabamba is now demanding freedom for its leader and three lawyers who were jailed last week over accusations they organized the blockade to extort MMG, which is controlled by state-owned China Minmetals.
Fuerabamba villagers say the men were set up to discredit their demands and have summoned other villages to back them in broader protests against the arrests.
The dispute has evolved into region-wide complaints and calls for justice. Hundreds of protesters, many Quechua-speaking Indians from villages near Las Bambas, marched at an entry road to the mine on Wednesday to call for the release of Fuerabamba’s leaders, according to media reports and videos provided by Fuerabamba.
The government’s negotiating team returned to the regional capital, Cusco.
“We went with a disposition for dialogue and that’s why we’re going to continue with that disposition and see how things shape up tomorrow,” Bustamante told state TV channel 7 late on Wednesday. “We’re not going to retreat in this process.”
Vizcarra has ruled out clearing protesters by force.
Fuerabamba’s vice president, Edison Vargas, told Reuters there would be no negotiations with the government or an end to protests until the four men were released.
The government said it cannot tell an independent judicial system to release prisoners.
The government’s failure to restart talks promises to prolong a dispute that has already halted Las Bambas exports. The company is also preparing to declare force majeure on sales.
Las Bambas, MMG’s flagship mine, produced nearly 400,000 tonnes of copper last year, about 2 percent of the world’s copper and 1 percent of Peru’s gross domestic product.
Prime Minister Salvador Del Solar denied the government was behind the arrests, which he said had thwarted talks.
“We lack a representative to speak with due to a decision by the prosecutors’ office which may be completely legitimate but which was not ours to make,” he told a news conference. “In the meantime, our efforts to find a window of dialogue continue.”
Del Solar defended the arrests as the work of an independent criminal probe by public prosecutors. The arrests have been condemned by local mayors and officials as the “criminalization” of protest.
Wednesday’s protest was made up of representatives of more than 50 communities, a Fuerabamba spokesman said.
Vargas is also sought for arrest by police, an interior ministry source said.
“How are we supposed to talk when they’re trying to arrest me?” Vargas said, describing an incident on Tuesday in which he alleged intelligence agents tried to capture him. “What dialogue are they talking about?”
Peru’s police department did not respond to requests for comment.
Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien