March 27, 2019 / 5:41 PM / a month ago

Peru officials head to Andes in hopes of ending copper road blockade

* Copper transport road blocked by protesters for 51 days

* China’s MMG expected to declare force majeure

* Govt has no one to negotiate with after village leader arrested

By Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino

LIMA, March 27 (Reuters) - High-ranking government officials in Peru traveled to a highland region on Wednesday in hopes of peacefully ending a road blockade by an indigenous community that has halted exports from one of the country’s biggest copper mines.

Prime Minister Salvador del Solar said the government commission, led by three ministers, would look for mediators to speak with the community of Fuerabamba, after the village’s leader and lawyers were arrested last week on allegations they tried to extort Chinese miner MMG Ltd.

The arrests deepened the deadlock over access to a road that residents of Fuerabamba have blocked for 51 days, cutting off a key supply of copper exports. The protesters say they have not been properly compensated for use of their land.

MMG uses the road to transport copper from its Las Bambas mine, which produces about 2 percent of the world’s copper. The company - controlled by state-owned China Minmetals - said on Tuesday that it expected to declare force majeure on its copper contracts due to the blockade.

The arrests have also triggered criticism from local leaders in Peru’s southern copper belt that authorities are “criminalizing” protests.

Del Solar denied the government was behind the arrests of Gregorio Rojas, the president of Fuerabamba, and the community’s three lawyers, saying they were part of an independent criminal probe.

“We lack a representative to speak with due to a decision by the prosecutors’ office which may be completely legitimate but which was not ours to make,” del Solar told a news conference. “In the meantime, our efforts to find a window of dialogue continue.”

The vicepresident of Fuerabamba, Edison Vargas, reiterated that he and other community leaders would not speak with the government or end the blockade until the four men were released from prison. Vargas added that he had gone into hiding after men in civilian clothes tried to capture him on Tuesday.

A source in the interior ministry who was not authorized to speak to reporters said an arrest warrant had been issued for Vargas.

“How can I talk with them if they’re trying to arrest me?” Vargas told Reuters by phone. “What dialogue are they talking about?”

Police have accused Rojas and Fuerabamba’s lawyers of organizing the road blockade to force MMG to pay them. Vargas said they are innocent.

Fuerabamba wants MMG to pay the community for using a stretch of road on its farmland, saying the company had built it without its permission. MMG denies the allegation and has said it is open to dialogue.

On Tuesday the interior minister said there were no plans to end the blockade by force.

Reporting by Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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