SANTIAGO – A group of masked men burned several homes and other buildings Sunday in a rural area in the Chilean region of Araucania, the area where the so-called Mapuche conflict is taking place, a police spokesman said.
Members of non-governmental organizations and reporters in the region said that later the police carried out operations in several Indian communities, but members of the Carabineros militarized police force denied those reports.
In addition, in the same area, the house of the sister of a well-known Mapuche representative, Jose Santos Millao, was completely destroyed by another fire, Television Nacional reported, adding that it is not known who started that blaze.
The incidents occurred in broad daylight on the official day of mourning decreed by the government over the deaths of seven firefighters, who were killed while battling a forest fire in the area and whose funerals are being held on Sunday.
That fire has been brought under control, but not before it burned more than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) in Araucania.
The government believes that some of those fires were intentionally set and it has pointed to members of a radical Mapuche organization as being the possible culprits, although on Saturday government officials would not state unequivocally that that was their hypothesis.
In the first incident over the past few hours, about five masked and armed men invaded a large farm in the Ercilla district owned by a retired army officer.
There, they intimidated the man’s wife and the caretaker of the property and burned the house of the latter, the main house and two storage buildings. The property is located in the Pidima sector, some 600 kilometers (372 miles) south of Santiago.
Carabineros special forces agents were dispatched to the scene and exchanged shots with the masked men, but no injuries were reported. However, a television network vehicle and two of the Carabineros’ automobiles were damaged, a police spokesman said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Members of NGOs and reporters said that after the incident the Carabineros conducted patrols and raids at different spots in Ercilla.
The police fired tear gas and several Mapuches were wounded by gunfire in the community of Chequenko, also in the Pidima sector, said a member of the Ethical Commission against Torture, Jose Venturelli.
A pregnant woman suffered health complications when she inhaled the tear gas, Venturelli said and that was confirmed by a Biobio radio correspondent.
The firing of tear gas contravened an order issued by the Temuco Court of Appeals prohibiting the Carabineros from using tear gas in that type of operation, Venturelli, who was about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the site, said.
The Mapuches, who number about 600,000 tribe members and suffer from a high rate of poverty, are concentrated in La Araucania, where during the 1990s they confronted agricultural and forestry companies over territory they consider to be their ancestral lands.