LIMA, Peru – Peru will seek criminal charges against Greenpeace activists who damaged the world-renowned Nazca lines by leaving footprints in the adjacent desert during a publicity stunt, a senior government official said Tuesday.
"It's a true slap in the face at everything Peruvians consider sacred," Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo said of Monday's action by the environmental group at the famed drawings etched into Peru's coastal desert, a U.N. World Heritage site.
He said the government was seeking to prevent those responsible from leaving the country while it asks prosecutors to file charges of "attacking archaeological monuments," a crime punishable by up to six years in prison.
The activists entered a "strictly prohibited" area beside the famed figure of a hummingbird, the Culture Ministry said in a statement. They laid big yellow cloth letters reading: "Time for Change; The Future is Renewable."
The message was intended for delegates from 190 countries at the U.N. climate talks being held in nearby Lima.
Castillo said no one, not even presidents and Cabinet ministers, is allowed without authorization where the activists trod, and those who do have permission must wear special shoes.
The Nazca lines are huge figures depicting living creatures, stylized plants and imaginary figures scratched on the surface of the ground between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. They are believed to have had ritual astronomical functions.
"They are absolutely fragile. They are black rocks on a white background. You walk there and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years," Castillo said. "And the line that they have destroyed is the most visible and most recognized of all."
Greenpeace spokeswoman Tina Loeffelbein said that the activists were "absolutely careful to protect the Nazca lines" and that the group is taking the case seriously and investigating.
She declined to answer further questions, such as whether Greenpeace intends to identify to authorities the people involved. The government has asked people to do so.
"Peru has nothing against the message of Greenpeace. We are all concerned about climate change," said Castillo. "But the means doesn't justify the ends."
Greenpeace regularly riles governments and corporations with actions that sometimes lead to arrests and jail.
In March, seven activists were arrested for unfurling banners from the roof of the headquarters of Procter & Gamble Co. to protest the corporation's use of palm oil that Greenpeace linked to rainforest destruction.
A lawyer for the seven said last week that they would plead guilty to lesser charges of criminal trespass to avoid a trial on felony charges.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.