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Illegal gold miners riot in Peru; authorities say at least 20 injured
LIMA, Peru (AP) ' More than 10,000 illegal gold miners battled police in an attempt to seize control of a regional capital in the Amazon basin on Wednesday. Authorities reported at least 20 injuries.
Outnumbered riot police used tear gas to try to drive back the miners, who are resisting government efforts to regulate small-scale gold extraction that is ravaging the rain forest and contaminating it with tons of mercury.
At least 12,500 miners tried to seize public buildings, markets and the airport in Puerto Maldonado, said Madre de Dios regional President Jose Luis Aguirre.
"Twenty people have been hospitalized," he told The Associated Press by phone. "The situation is untenable. You can hear gunshots throughout the entire city."
Aguirre said the situation was "out of control and it could get a lot worse."
The state governor, Gilberto Galindo, said police made 43 arrests. But police were badly outnumbered with just 700 officers.
Police said they prevented rioters from seizing the bus station and airport of the largely dirt-street capital, but to the west, miners blocked the transoceanic highway that links the highland city of Cuzco and Peru's coast with Brazil, taking control of a key bridge.
"Everyone is frightened. The few government offices that are functioning are working with doors shut," said Oscar Guadelupe, a Puerto Maldonado-based activist who works with victims of child prostitution in the largely lawless region.
A gold rush has swelled Madre de Dios state with about 40,000 small-scale miners who are scarring virgin rain forest as they extract gold particles from river beds and alluvial plains.
The gold fever has been fueled by a tripling in the price of the precious metal over the past decade.
It has attracted poor farmers from the Andean highlands as well as unscrupulous investors and gunslingers, and Madre de Dios now produces about a fifth of Peru's overall annual gold yield.
The mining is almost entirely illegal and government attempts to regulate it have been mostly futile, not just in Madre de Dios but in other regions where informal mining is also rampant.
Guadelupe said by phone that Puerto Maldonado's streets, normally buzzing with motorcycle taxis, were empty and he could hear constant gunshots that he believed came from police firing tear gas.
The violence began Tuesday after talks between miners and government officials broke down.
Cesar Ascorra, regional director of the Roman Catholic charity Caritas, said two informal mining groups had signed an agreement with the government but "the rest did not recognize the accord and now they don't want to negotiate."
He and Guadelupe said police on Tuesday had beaten back an attempt by miners to seize the just-completed bridge in Puerto Maldonado over the Madre de Dios river that links it with Brazil.
Associated Press writer Carla Salazar contributed to this report.