LA PAZ — Protests over a planned highway through a Bolivian rainforest preserve spread Monday as the defense minister resigned in repudiation of a police crackdown on a protest march against the project.
Angry residents erected barricades and set them on fire on the runways of an airport in the northeastern Amazon region to free about 300 marchers who had been detained by police on Sunday and were to be flown home.
"Residents blocked the airport and prevented the detainees from being transferred," the mayor of Rurrenabaque, Yerko Nunez, told the privately owned Panamerican radio, adding the police fled.
Riot police on Sunday fired tear gas to disperse a long march on La Paz by Indians from the Amazon to voice their opposition to government plans for a highway through the rainforest preserve.
Police rounded up hundreds of marchers and forced them onto buses in an operation that left several people injured.
An AFP journalist saw several activists with superficial face wounds taken away by dozens of police officers, who were loading the marchers into buses.
The police action came under fire from UN officials and human rights group, and on Monday Bolivian Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon announced she was resigning in protest.
"I do not agree with the intervention in the march and I cannot justify the measure when other alternatives existed," she said in a letter to leftist President Evo Morales.
She warned the right would take advantage of the police action to sow discontent against Morales' government.
Indigenous activists from Bolivia's Amazon basin region left the northern city of Trinidad in mid-August in a bid to march on the capital La Paz to protest the highway plan.
The road would run through a nature preserve that is the ancestral homeland of 50,000 natives from three different Amazonian groups, who have lived largely in isolation for centuries.
After more than a month of hiking from the Amazon rainforest, the protesters arrived just outside Yucumo on Saturday after breaking through a police barricade by forcing the country's foreign minister to march with them.
Morales, attempting to defuse tensions, said Sunday a referendum would be held to determine whether the road project should go ahead.
It was not immediately clear how soon the vote would be held.
Morales, the country's first elected indigenous president, favors the road project, arguing it is needed for development.
But Amazon natives fear landless Andean Quechua and Aymara people -- Bolivia's main indigenous groups -- will flood into the area and colonize the region.
"The most important thing for us is that they stop the violence as soon as possible," said the UN envoy in Bolivia, Yoriko Yasukawa, reminding authorities it was their responsibility to "protect the people."
Veteran human rights activist Maria Carvajal told AFP that police had surged into the demonstrators' camp with "extreme violence," adding: "I could not believe what was happening."
In Santa Cruz, a group of 16 Amazon Indians began a hunger strike Monday in the city's cathedral to protest the "outrage carried out by the government, using the police to repress a peaceful march," protester Emigio Polche told the PAT television station.
Aymara and Quechua Indians joined in another hunger strike in Cochabamba at the San Francisco church, a spokesman for the group, Reynaldo Flores, told Bolivision television.
"We are ashamed at what is happening in our country," Flores said.
Bolivia is South America's only mostly indigenous nation.