Madagascan troops and police fired teargas Saturday to disperse hundreds of protesters and free nearly 200 employees of mining giant Rio Tinto, including its local chief executive, who were trapped inside a mine, authorities said.
"Soldiers surprised the protesters early this morning, dispersed them and could then free the staff," said Guillaume Venance, traditional leader of the Anosy region on the southeastern tip of the island.
A combined force of soldiers, police and paratroopers carried out the operation at Rio Tinto QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), he said.
"The protesters were harmless because they had drunk and smoked too much, but others arrived to their rescue and we had to fire teargas to disperse them," Venance told AFP.
Authorities stopped attempts to set fire to staff houses in the mine compound, Venance added.
Local residents armed with spears and slingshots launched the protest Wednesday against what they complained were the low prices the company paid to buy their land, and to call for more locals to be hired at the company's mineral sands operation near the town of Fort-Dauphin.
The protest trapped nearly 200 employees inside the mine . Some were evacuated Thursday, but QMM chief executive Nyfanja Rakotomalala and 178 others had still been trapped in the compound.
The company earlier threatened to abandon its operations if the blockage was not lifted.
The land dispute has raged since the Anglo-Australian mining giant set up shop in the Indian Ocean island state.
Locals accuse the company of paying as little as 100 ariary ($0.04, 0.03 euro) per square kilometre of land.
A court dismissed the dispute six months ago.
QMM mines ilmenite, a mineral used in high-tech components. The Malagasy government retains 20 percent of the project, which started production in 2009.
Fort Dauphin has 70 million tonnes of ilmenite deposits, around 10 percent of the global market, which the company plans to exploit for up to 25 years.