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AREQUIPA, Peru – Dozens of farmers and activists burned tires and briefly occupied a bridge in Peru's southern highlands Wednesday, defying troops sent to quell weeks of deadly protests against a Mexican-owned copper mining project.
The first of two days of planned protests against the $1.4 billion Tia Maria copper mine was otherwise peaceful as hundreds of soldiers in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets to clear demonstrators away from bridges, highways and airports in eight conflict zones.
Protests have roiled parts of the Peruvian Andes for weeks and tensions escalated this month after a third demonstrator died in clashes with police. About 200 protesters have been injured, along with around 100 police officers.
Farmers say the proposed open-pit mine will contaminate a river in the coastal Tambo valley and destroy their rice crops. The Mexican-owned conglomerate behind the project says it will rely on water from a desalination plant and return it all to the Pacific Ocean.
"Mining is a malignant cancer that has only brought us blood and pain," said Martiza Chite, a protester carrying a black banner reading "No More Deaths."
President Ollanta Humala has strongly defended the project, which he says is necessary to shore up confidence in Peru's resource-dependent economy amid slowing growth. Peru is the world*s third-largest copper producer and 62 percent of the country's export revenue comes from mining.
Humala said people linked to the Maoist Shining Path rebel group have infiltrated the protestors' ranks in an effort to provoke violence.
But farmers accuse the government of adopting authoritarian measures after Humala last week deployed troops to enforce a 60-day state of emergency that suspends civil liberties for the estimated 40,000 people living in affected communities.
Peru's ombudsman says there are 93 other mining conflicts throughout the country, many of them led by small farmers who have not benefited much from Peru's strong economic growth over the past decade.
Gen. Enrique Blanco, Arequipa's police chief, said demonstrators launching or carrying dangerous objects will be detained. Protesters were seen firing rocks at police with homemade slingshots in previous demonstrations.
The United Nations and Amnesty International have urged authorities to exercise caution and respect protesters' right to demonstrate.