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Peru's army on standby as jungle unrest grows

Peru is considering sending in the army to break up protests by Amazonian Indians who claim the government is preparing a massive land grab in the country's remote jungles.

Indigenous groups have blockaded roads and a river and set up pickets at energy installations to protest changes in the law which would make it easier for commercial interests to buy up collectively owned tribal lands in the northern regions of Peru.

The government has responded to an appeal for talks by declaring a state of emergency in three states and threatening protesters with military action.

"Indigenous people are defending themselves against government aggression," said an Amazon Indian rights campaigner, Alberto Pizango. "This is not an ordinary or everyday demonstration. The Indians have told us they are not afraid. If the government declares a state of emergency they prefer to die there and show that this government violates human rights."

Relations between indigenous groups and the President Alan Garcia have become increasingly hostile as the government has sought to exploit what are thought to be rich oil and gas deposits in lands owned by Amazon Indians. Energy companies have pushed deep into supposedly protected areas in the past year, leading to clashes with some of the most remote tribal peoples left in the world.

The increasingly unpopular Garcia administration is under pressure due to soaring energy costs and failure to translate economic growth into a general rise in the standard of living. It is actively courting outside energy giants and this week agreed a £2.5bn stake in the state oil company to China.

Ten days of protests have so far seen thousands of Indians from all over the Peruvian Amazon mobilised. A small number of arrests have followed and a clash between police officers and hundreds of spear-carrying Indians on Saturday led to eight people being injured, according to local media reports. Police claim that two of their officers have been taken hostage after being sent to a protest site over the weekend.

Protesters have also surrounded Peru's largest natural gas installation, the Camisea field, in the south of the country.

The Environment Minister Antonio Brack said protesters have closed a bridge and highway "and threatened to cut the supply of oil via the oil pipeline and gas through the Camisea gas pipeline".

"The government of Peru cannot permit it," he added.

The protests are in response to new laws passed by the government. The Indians say the changes undermine their rights and make it easier for companies to take control of their territories. Under old laws a two-thirds majority of each community was required before land could be sold, this has been changed to a simple majority.