LIMA, March 19 (Reuters) - The new mayor of a small Andean town in Peru near a huge, multi-billion-dollar copper project was shot dead in an apparent ambush while traveling by car in the region, authorities said on Thursday.
Peru's interior minister vowed to carry out a thorough investigation of the assassination of Alberto Roque, 35, who assumed power in January as mayor of Mara in Peru's central highland region Apurimac.
"It was not a robbery," said local prosecutor Jessica Pumacayo. "But we don't know the motive...so far we don't have any indications he had enemies."
Antolin Chipani, the mayor of nearby town Challhuahuacho, said Roque had been busy negotiating with the central government to broaden education and job opportunities to towns around MMG Ltd's $7 billion proposed Las Bambas project.
Prime Minister Ana Jara said "radical groups" might have targeted Roque to silence moderates working with her cabinet.
"There are reasons to believe this was a warning to political authorities who are taking part in dialogue," Jara said on local broadcaster RPP.
In early February, an estimated 1,000 protesters from rural communities kidnapped some 200 contract workers for the miner for several hours, according to a report by the country's ombudsman.
Peru, the world's third biggest copper producer, is rife with social conflicts, especially in the mineral-rich Andes where billion-dollar mines are built alongside poor communities that lack basic services.
Roque was found dead in his car Wednesday after airing his town's demands to the energy and mines ministry in a meeting with other local leaders, said Chipani.
"This is a humble, calm place. This has never happened here before," Chipani said. "Now we're completely terrified. All of the mayors are frightened."
Pumacaya said one person had been "intervened," but declined to confirm that meant an arrest was made.
Interior Minister Jose Luis Perez traveled to the area on Thursday to lead investigations into the murder.
"It's an affront to all Peruvians and to democracy," Perez said in a statement.
Las Bambas is set to become Peru's biggest copper mine, producing an estimated 450,000 tonnes of copper per year once up and running.
Chinese miner MMG, which bought the project from Glencore Plc last year, has said production will likely start in the first quarter of 2016. An Andean village is being relocated to a newly-built town to make way for the mine.
Reporting By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino; Editing by Michael Perry