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Dozens of farmers and activists burned tyres and briefly occupied a bridge in Peru’s southern highlands, defying troops sent to quell weeks of deadly protests against a copper mining project.

The first of two days of planned protests against the Mexican-owned $1.4bn (£912m) Tia Maria copper mine saw hundreds of soldiers in riot gear fire tear gas and rubber bullets to clear demonstrators away from bridges, highways and airports in eight conflict zones.

Protests have hit parts of the Peruvian Andes for weeks and tensions rose this month after a third demonstrator died in clashes with police. About 200 protesters have been injured, along with around 100 police officers.

Farmers say the proposed open-pit mine will contaminate a river in the coastal Tambo valley and destroy their rice crops. The conglomerate behind the project says it will rely on water from a desalination plant and return it all to the Pacific Ocean.

“Mining is a cancer that has only brought us blood and pain,” said demonstrator Martiza Chite.

President Ollanta Humala has strongly defended the project, which he says is necessary to shore up confidence in Peru’s resource-dependent economy amid slowing growth.

Peru is the world’s third-largest copper producer and 62 per cent of the country’s export revenue comes from mining.

Mr Humala said people linked to the Maoist Shining Path rebel group have infiltrated the protesters’ ranks in an effort to provoke violence.

But farmers accuse the government of adopting authoritarian measures after Mr Humala last week deployed troops to enforce a 60-day state of emergency.