By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador sent soldiers and police on Thursday to an isolated jungle area after a policeman was killed and several security officials injured in a violent protest against a Chinese copper exploration project amid conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, declared a 30-day state of emergency in Morona Santiago province, home to the Panantza-San Carlos exploration project operated by the ExplorCobres company. His government said "illegally armed groups" protested against the project on Wednesday.
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"Violent people want to take over the mining camp," Correa said on Twitter. "We have one dead police officer and several others injured. Criminals!"
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was paying close attention to the incident and was in touch with Ecuador about it, although, as far as he knew, no Chinese had been injured.
China appreciates Ecuador's steps to bring the situation under control, Geng said, noting Correa's condemnation.
"China is willing to work with Ecuador to take effective steps to create a good environment for bilateral practical cooperation," he told a daily news briefing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Ecuador last month.
Local media reported that the indigenous Shuar group, which accuses authorities of generating violence by kicking them out of their ancestral home to make way for mining developments, staged the protest.
The head of Ecuador's larger indigenous association, CONAIE, called on the church to mediate the conflict.
"These are no invaders, these are communities who have lived here for hundreds of years," said Jorge Herrera.
The incident highlights tensions facing Ecuador and much of mineral-rich Latin America - how to develop vast mineral wealth while addressing deep inequalities, environmental concerns and indigenous rights.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach ExplorCobres.
China has been the largest financier of Ecuador, an OPEC nation, since 2009 and is heavily present in its oil industry.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)