LIMA, Peru — Thousands of illegal gold miners battled police for control of a regional capital in the Amazon basin on Wednesday and at least three people were killed by gunfire.
Outnumbered riot police fired tear gas against miners who wielded clubs and rocks and tried to seize strategic facilities. The miners are fighting government efforts to regulate small-scale gold extraction, which is ravaging the rain forest, contaminating it with tons of mercury.
It could not immediately be determined whether police fired directly on rioters in Puerto Maldonado, a boomtown at the confluence of two jungle rivers in a region popular with ecotourists.
After talks failed with a government delegation, at least 12,500 miners attempted to seize public buildings, markets and the airport in the city, said Madre de Dios regional President Jose Luis Aguirre.
"The situation is untenable. You can hear gunshots throughout the entire city," he told The Associated Press by phone, calling the situation "out of control."
Three people were killed by gunfire, said regional health director Dr. Jorge Asencios, and 38 were treated at Santa Rosa regional hospital for injuries, including a police officer hit in the head by a rock.Interior Minister Daniel Lozada said police made 62 arrests. By afternoon, 500 police reinforcements had arrived to bolster a badly outnumbered contingent of 700 officers.
Police said they prevented rioters from seizing the bus station and airport of the largely dirt-street capital of about 37,000 residents. But to the west, miners took control of a key bridge, blocking the transoceanic highway that links the highland city of Cuzco and Peru's coast to Brazil.