By Terry Wade and Marco Aquino
LIMA (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch urged Peruvian President Ollanta Humala on Thursday to rein in the police and the army to prevent them from shooting and killing people who protest against mining companies.
At least 19 people have died in disputes over natural resources since Humala took office in July 2011. The Andean country is one of the world's top exporters of minerals.
The former army officer has promised to use mediation to avert violence. But critics say he now is too quick to rely on security forces to break up demonstrations against new mines.
In an open letter to Humala, the New York-based group said he should immediately bar security forces from using live ammunition to control crowds, ensure that police have adequate supplies of nonlethal weapons and close legal loopholes that could give immunity to officers who commit abuses.
Human Rights Watch said its investigation into the deaths of five protesters at demonstrations in the Cajamarca region in July against a gold mine proposed by U.S. company Newmont turned up red flags.
"We found evidence that strongly suggests that the use of lethal force was unwarranted and constituted a serious violation of international human rights norms," the group said in its eight-page letter to Humala and his Cabinet.
Fallout from the Cajamarca protests prompted Humala to shuffle his Cabinet and promote Juan Jimenez, a human rights lawyer who had been justice minister, to prime minister.
In 2006 Humala's failed campaign for the presidency was rattled when he was named in a lawsuit alleging that soldiers from an army base he oversaw in 1992 were responsible for the disappearance of two presumed insurgents during Peru's civil war.
Peruvian courts exonerated Humala, but relatives of the victims have since sent the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch called on Humala to carry out a thorough inquiry to see if police shot unarmed protesters in Cajamarca.
The government, which maintains that in some cases the protesters were armed, reiterated on Thursday that it has a plan to use only nonlethal weapons to control crowds. It had no further comment.
Critics of mining companies have said they do not bring enough direct economic benefits to poor rural towns, soak up scarce water supplies and cause pollution. The government says mines generate exports, tax revenues and jobs that have fueled the country's decade-long economic boom.
There are more than 200 lingering disputes over natural resources in Peru, and 165 people were killed in protests during the term of Humala's predecessor, Alan Garcia, according to Peru's own human rights agency.
(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Xavier Briand)