At least 31 people have been killed in a 24-hour orgy of violence in northern Peru where police clashed with Amazon Indians over land rights in the rainforest, government officials said.
According to Prime Minister Yehude Simon, 22 police officers and nine civilians were killed Friday and Saturday after police forcibly re-opened a regional highway that thousands of Amazon Indian protesters had been blocking for days.
The clashes mark the bloodiest unrest in Peru since the Shining Path, a violent Maoist rebel group, terrorized the country in the 1980s and 1990s in its battle against the government.
Simon warned that the civilian death toll was likely to rise, and local press reports said that there could be up to 25 civilians dead. By late Friday he said there were already 108 civilians wounded.
The protesters want to overturn decrees signed by President Alan Garcia easing restrictions on mining, oil drilling, wood harvesting and farming in the Amazon rainforest.
Fighting broke out when some 400 police officers moved in on Friday to break up the roadblock on a highway near the town of Bagua, some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Lima.
Some 2,500 Indian protesters, many carrying spears and machetes, had been blocking the highway with tree trunks and boulders for ten days.
Police cleared the road, but protesters torched government buildings, looted offices and attacked the Bagua police station, local officials said.
In the aftermath of the clashes, bloodied Indians arrived to a local medical center with bullet wounds.
Some lay on the floor on a row of thin mattresses that acted as makeshift hospital beds, as medical staff set up drips and tended dressings.
On the highway, emergency services passed the charred chassis of burnt out vehicles as security forces tried to help traffic resume.
A large group of protesters also took 38 police officers protecting an oil pumping station hostage.
Nine of those officers were killed when soldiers raided the pumping station on Saturday, said police chief Miguel Hidalgo.
Twenty-two of the hostages were freed in the raid, but seven remained missing, Hidalgo said.
Simon and Garcia have denounced the protests as part of a "plot against democracy" that could have foreign support, but did not offer details.
Army General Raul Silva, authorized by the central government to take full control of the region, urged locals to remain calm and respect the 3 pm to dawn curfew in the area's three largest towns.
Some 65 indigenous groups in Peru's Amazon rainforest have been protesting the Garcia liberalization decrees since early April. They are also demanding to be consulted on issues concerning their land.
"We represent 1,350 communities, the equivalent of 600,000 Amazon Indians, and we ask the government to consider 25 million hectares (62 million acres) as ancestral territory," protest leader Alberto Pizango recently told AFP.
"We feel that the government... has always treated us as second-class citizens," he said.
Following the Friday violence, Pizango accused Garcia of "genocide" and for "perpetuating the worst slaughter of our people in the last 20 years."
Pizango then went into hiding -- just ahead of an arrest warrant issued Saturday charging him with sedition, conspiracy and rebellion.
Those protesting the Garcia decrees include thousands of Indians in five of Peru's Amazon provinces, from Cuzco in southern Peru north to the borders with Ecuador and Colombia.
In a written statement, Garcia Saturday said that Peru "is suffering from ... an aggression against democracy and against the National Police. To face this we must respond with composure and firmness."
Due to the "irresponsible aggression" by the protesters, police officers "have been savagely and barbarically murdered."
The killers used "identical methods as those used by the Shining Path" guerrillas, said Garcia, who stated that "humble police that were surrendering unarmed" had their throats slit and were attacked with spears.