CEO of Peru's largest copper miner seeks 'common ground' after protests

By Marcelo Rochabrun

AQUIA, Peru, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The head of Antamina, Peru's largest copper producer, looked to defuse tensions with rural community protesters on Friday, addressing residents in a local meeting after a blockade forced the mining firm to suspend operations last week.

Victor Gobitz, head of Antamina, part-owned by Glencore Plc GLEN.L and BHP Billiton BHP.AX, told residents at a town hall meeting in Aquia attended by Reuters that the two sides could find common ground, a sharp shift from an earlier critical tone.

"With orderly dialogue we will find the formula for a development plan for the whole town of Aquia," Gobitz said at the meeting, held in the town's bull fighting arena. "We have to lead by example that we can find common ground."

The tone was a marked shift for Gobitz, who initially dismissed the protesters as violent and only representative of a minority of voices.

Protests against miners in Peru, the world's No. 2 copper producer, have escalated in recent weeks amid high expectations from rural communities emboldened by the socialist administration of center-left President Pedro Castillo.

Castillo, from a peasant farming background, came to power in July with massive support from mining regions, promising to increase taxes on miners to promote local development.

The community in Aquia, located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Antamina, had blocked a key road for the mine in late October, before agreeing to lift the blockade after government talks earlier this week.

Residents say the area receives little in terms of tax contributions from the mine, although the company has a copper pipeline and road running through the town.

"We are not throwing a social tantrum," said Adan Damian, the president of Aquia, in remarks in response to Gobitz. "I have mixed feelings that after protesting so much we are finally being listened to."

Gobitz said Antamina would withdraw criminal allegations against Aquia leaders and nearby residents made in the lead-up to the protests, and work to provide cellphone towers to the town. He shook hands with local leaders at the meeting.

Aquia residents are hoping to sign a formal agreement with Antamina later on Friday. Gobitz's presence indicates a positive resolution is likely.

(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Marguerita Choy and Steve Orlofsky)

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