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Peru security forces trash illegal mining machines

By RODRIGO ABD and FRANK BAJAK

HUEPETUHE, Peru (AP) a¿¿ In a surprise raid, about 1,500 police and troops dynamited $20 million worth of heavy machinery as Peru's government dialed up a crackdown on illegal gold mining that has badly scarred the ecologically rich southeastern jungle region of Madre de Dios.

The operation Monday was the first such action since a nationwide ban on illegal mining took effect April 19. Security forces accompanied by prosecutors blew up backhoes, generators and water pumps in the Huepetuhe district, a mining boomtown dating back to the 1980s that includes two entire streets of brothels and many more of machine shops.

Some adjacent buildings caught fire from explosions witnessed by an Associated Press photographer, but there were no reports of injuries. Police and soldiers cleared out adjoining camps first.

"We are using specially designed methods and strategies to avoid violence," said Daniel Urresti, a former army general running the operation. "There hasn't been a single injury."

Madre de Dios state has an estimated 40,000 illegal miners, most centered near the commercially vital Interoceanic Highway that links the Pacific Ocean with Brazil.

They use tons of mercury to bind the gold flecks they dig up, and have ravaged forests and poisoned rivers in a biodiverse region that is also home to tribes living in voluntary isolation.

Huepetuhe itself is flanked by a 1-by-10-mile wasteland gouged out of tropical forest. Some mining claims in Huepetuhe are legal.

The equipment destroyed was on the outskirts of town or at a nearby river. It included 15 backhoes, 45 big motors used to suck water from rivers and nine dredges, Urresti said. All mining in rivers is illegal in Peru.

Before the deadline, the government began sharply reducing gasoline supplies to Madre de Dios, idling mining machinery. Its multi-pronged approach to snuffing out illegal mining has included confiscating illegal gold at domestic airports and dynamiting illegal gold refineries in the coastal cities of Chala and Nazca.

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