MEXICO CITY, May 4 (Reuters) - Suspected oil thieves killed at least four soldiers in two separate incidents in the central Mexican state of Puebla, the army said on Thursday, as emboldened organized crime moves deeper into the lucrative trade.
A group of soldiers went to investigate a report of an oil pipeline theft at around 8:15 p.m. (0115 GMT) on Wednesday night near the village of Palmarito, when they were shot at by a group using woman and children as human shields, the army said in a statement late on Wednesday.
The soldiers decided not to return fire, but two of them died in the attack and one more was wounded.
A few hours later in the same location, armed men in five sports utility vehicles opened fire on a different group of soldiers, the army said in a new statement on Thursday.
Two more soldiers died in the ensuing firefight, and nine were wounded, the army said. Three of the suspected fuel thieves were killed, while one was wounded, it added. The army said soldiers arrested 12 people, including two minors.
On Thursday, in the wake of the attacks, locals blocked a nearby highway with burning tires, television images showed. Local media reported that the protesters blamed the army for starting the incidents, and said minors were still missing.
The clash is the latest chapter in a growing problem for the Mexican government. State-run oil company Pemex says it is losing a record 27,000 barrels per day of gasoline and diesel as criminal gangs move deeper into the oil theft business. (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Sandra Maler)