NEW DELHI - Scores of protesters set vehicles on fire in southern India on Tuesday and threw stones at police, police officials said, demanding that conglomerate Vedanta Resources shut a copper smelter over environment hazards to the area.
Residents of the port city of Thootukudi in Tamil Nadu state and environmentalists have been demonstrating against one of India's biggest copper plants for more than three months saying it is a major source of pollution and a risk to fisheries.
The protest turned violent on Tuesday as a crowd waving black flags stormed the district government headquarters and an apartment block for Vedanta employees, a company official said, declining to be named for fear of being targeted.
Local TV showed police trying to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. Smoke rose from several parts of the sleepy port city near the tip of the Indian peninsula.
Two local police officials confirmed the violence. "We are trying to control it," one of the officials said.
"The vehicles at an apartment where our employees live were set on fire by the protesters. They tried attacking the apartment, but police arrived and stopped them from causing further damage," the Vedanta official said.
The plant, which can produce 400,000 tonnes of copper a year, has been shut for more than 50 days and will remain shut until at least June 6, because the local pollution regulator will not allow it to operate due to alleged non-compliance with environmental rules.
Some activists and politicians want the government to shut the plant down permanently.
"The inaction of the government has led to the people's protests, and police resorting to firing to control it. Action should be taken to shutdown the plant immediately to address this issue," M.K. Stalin, leader of the main opposition group in Tamil Nadu, said in a Facebook post.
Local media have reported that police have fired on the protesters and that at least person has died.
State Minister D. Jayakumar in a televised address on Tuesday said police have fired on protesters and that it was "unavoidable". Police officials have declined to comment on the matter.
A Vedanta spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The company has previously said the protests are based on "false allegations" and that it plans to double capacity at the smelter to 800,000 tonnes per year.
The plant was shut more than two months in 2013 by an Indian environmental court after residents complained about emissions.