PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Police arrested nearly 50 protesters in Panama in confrontations over a new government-approved contract for a major copper mine, officials said on Tuesday, adding that five police officers were injured in the clashes.
Last week, lawmakers gave final approval for the extended concession covering the Cobre Panama mine operated by Canada's First Quantum. The sprawling open-pit mine accounts for nearly 5% of Panama's economic activity.
In a statement, police confirmed the detention of 48 protesters so far, charging them with personal injuries, damage to property and other crimes.
Some locals and civic organizations have opposed the contract due largely to concerns about the mine's environmental impact.
Demonstrating their anger with the deal that will allow the mine to continue operating for at least another couple decades, environmentalists, teachers, indigenous people and construction workers took to the streets in the capital, shutting down key highways. Protests also played out in the city of Colon and in western Chiriqui province.
While unrest over the mine has simmered for about a month, the protests intensified over the past week.
A stretch of the Pan-American highway, which runs the length of the country and is key to trade across Central America, has been intermittently blocked since Monday, when authorities suspended classes.
Officials also paused the capital Panama City's bus service due to the protests.
The police noted two officers were wounded by gunshots on Monday night in Panama City, while three others where beaten in a street blockade in Chiriqui.
Later on Tuesday, President Laurentino Cortizo defended the new deal with First Quantum as beneficial to the country's economic health, arguing the contract will safeguard jobs and social security funds.
(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Rod Nickel)