Amazonian tribe in Peru takes hostages after oil spill

LIMA (Reuters) - An indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon took at least eight public officials hostage to demand help from the central government after an oil spill polluted its lands, authorities said Monday.

The Wampis community of Mayuriaga seized a grounded military helicopter late on Sunday, holding crew members and several officials to press for inclusion in the emergency response plan, said German Velasquez, the president of state-owned energy company Petroperu.

A rupture in Petroperu’s 40-year-old pipeline spilled 1,000 barrels of oil in Mayuriaga on Feb. 3, nine days after a leak in the same duct poured 2,000 barrels near eight other indigenous communities in the same Amazonian region.

Environmental regulator OEFA ordered Petroperu to replace parts of the pipeline after repeated leaks in recent years. It said the two most recent spills polluted at least two rivers, including a tributary to the Amazon River.

Though officials refer to the second leak as “the Mayuriaga spill” because it took place in Mayuriaga, the government did not include the community in an official list of affected groups that would receive emergency supplies and attention.

The government will amend the emergency decree, published last month, to include Mayuriaga, said Deputy Culture Minister Patricia Balbuena.

Balbuena said a local government compiled the list and it was not clear why it excluded Mayuriaga.

“It’s a mistake that should be corrected as soon as possible,” Balbuena said.

Velasquez, who spoke by phone on his way to Mayuriaga, said the company has been tending to Mayuriaga’s needs anyway.

But not being included in the list would also make it harder for Mayuriaga to demand compensation, said regional governor Fernando Melendez.

Representatives of Mayuriaga could not be reached for immediate comment.

Peru is rife with social conflicts, especially related to water, and remote communities often take hostages to get the attention of the central government.

The group being held in Mayuriaga includes three Petroperu officials, four with OEFA and a specialist with the energy and mines ministry, said Velasquez.

The pipeline transported between 5,000 and 6,000 barrels of oil per day before the spills halted operations. It mostly moved crude from block 192, operated by Pacific Exploration & Production Corp, to Petroperu’s Talara refinery.

Petroperu faces some $17 million in fines if tests confirm the spills affected the health of locals, OEFA has said.

Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Lisa Shumaker