Indians in the western Andean region of Bolivia kidnapped three more employees of the Canadian mining company South American Silver, bringing the number of hostages they are holding to five, officials and Indian leaders said.
The Indians are demanding the expulsion of the firm from that area.
Potosi Gov. Felix Gonzalez and one of the indigenous leaders, Benedicto Colque, confirmed separately to the media on Tuesday that three more people had been taken hostage, in addition to the two who have been held since late June.
The kidnapped men include three engineers, a technician and a driver who are in the hands of an “ayllu” (Indian clan) from northern Potosi, a region which borders on Chile and Argentina.
Gonzalez expressed confidence that he will be able to negotiate with the communities to resolve the conflict, but he said that dozens of police have been sent to the area to avoid more incidents.
Colque, meanwhile, told Erbol radio that an assembly of Indians from the town of Malku Khota, where the Canadian firm operates, gave the government 48 hours to send a mission to the site, some 350 kilometers (217 miles) south of La Paz, to hear their demands regarding the expulsion of the mining company.
The Indians are also demanding the release of their leader Cancio Rojas, who is under house arrest in the city of Potosi accused of having kidnapped and tortured other Indians and police officers for several days some weeks ago during the same conflict.
The Canadian firm has been exploring the region since 2007 to evaluate the local silver mining potential, but gold can also be found in the region in small quantities which the Indians want to exploit themselves.
One faction of the indigenous people living in the area has been trying to force out the mining company, whose operations they see as an obstacle to their own efforts to mine the gold.
Compañia Minera Malku Khota, which is evaluating the zone’s potential for silver production, says a majority of the Indian clans in the area support the firm’s activities.
The company’s opponents, led by Rojas, have attacked other Indians and held police hostage, authorities say.
Colque said that the Indians are threatening to block the routes to Potosi if the government commission does not come to the area.
The ombudsman for Potosi, Rene Arroyo, told the media that he had managed to get in contact in Malku Khota with the three people taken hostage most recently by the Indians, and he confirmed that they had not been mistreated.
On the other hand, he has still not been able to communicate with the two other men kidnapped last Thursday and knows nothing about their condition, although the Indians have assured him that both are in good health.