ASUNCION — At least 16 people were killed and dozens hurt Friday in armed clashes that erupted when police tried to evict landless peasant farmers squatting a privately-owned farm in Paraguay, officials said.

Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola told reporters that seven police officers and at least nine peasants died in the incident in Curuguaty, located 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of the capital Asuncion.

Another official in Curuguaty said as many as 80 people had been injured in the melee, some of them seriously. Earlier, the death toll had been put at six.

Police had arrived at the farm, owned by a local businessman, to evict the peasants when the violence began.

The peasants shot at the police officers trying to evict them in Canindeyu department, in a region close to Paraguay's borders with Brazil and Argentina that is considered to be the most fertile in the country.

"The peasants have high-caliber weapons like M16 rifles," local police official Walter Gomez told television network 13.

Gomez said some of the 150 peasants involved in the incident "handled weapons very well."

"They shot cleanly to kill us. This is a critical situation," he said.

In total, about 320 police officers were deployed to the site and at one point surrounded the peasants in a wooded area with the help of helicopters.

"We acted in accordance with the law," Filizzola said.

In a brief statement, President Fernando Lugo expressed his "absolute support" for the police and offered his condolences to the families of the victims.

Lugo summoned his interior and defense ministers, as well as the head of the armed forces, to assess the situation. The country's senate held an extraordinary session to debate whether to declare a state of emergency in the area.

Territorial disputes are not unusual in Paraguay, where two percent of the population holds 80 percent of the land.

Photo AFP/File, Norberto Duarte