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BOGOTA: Two people were killed and dozens injured Thursday in Colombia as more than 30,000 farmers joined a growing anti-government protest, blocking roads and clashing with police, officials said.
The farmers, who launched their protest Monday, complain that free-trade agreements with Europe and the United States are flooding the country with cheap food imports, exacerbating rural poverty.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced the “death of two indigenous persons during the day’s protests” in a tweet.
In a subsequent posting, he said there was no evidence yet that the deaths were the result of police action.
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) said the two victims were from the western department of Cauca and died from gunshot wounds.
Some 135 people were injured, according to ONIC. Earlier, at midday the government ombudsman reported 21 civilians wounded.
The Defense Ministry reported that 31 members of the security forces were injured.
The farmers accuse President Juan Manuel Santos’s government of breaking its promises to them, and are demanding land reform and increased state spending in rural areas.
Protests have now erupted in 24 of Colombia’s 32 departments, shutting down at least 14 roads, the government rights ombudsman’s office said.
Police have broken up 11 other roadblocks, in some cases sparking clashes.
The key Pan-American Highway was cut off in several spots by farmers wielding sticks and stones.
The government calls the protests unfair and has asked the farmers’ organization, the Agrarian Summit, to hold talks.
Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo traveled Thursday to the department of Cauca, where one of the largest protests was being held, to try to broker a deal for negotiations.
Rural poverty and land tenure are explosive issues in Colombia, where peasant uprisings more than half a century ago morphed into an armed conflict that is still ongoing.
The conflict, which has drawn in leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs, has killed 260,000 people.