CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan officials searched on Monday for 28 miners who relatives say were killed and disappeared by a gang seeking to take over a disputed gold claim in a jungle area of the southeastern state of Bolivar.
Families say the wildcat miners were slain Friday and the gang then dismembered the bodies and drove the remains away in a truck.
State Gov. Francisco Rangel, a staunch ally of Venezuela's governing socialist administration, first denied that any massacre took place, saying local police investigated reports of a shootout but found no bodies at the mine.
"Once again, irresponsible politicians are trying to sow chaos in Bolivar state with FALSE information about murdered miners," he wrote on Twitter, accusing opposition politicians of trying to discredit the government's campaign to root out illegal mining.
But on Monday afternoon, he acknowledged that an extensive search for the men was under way as the public prosecutor's office investigated.
Families and people who said they witnessed the attack accused law enforcement agents of participating in the killings. Protesters on Monday continued to block the main road connecting the region to the border with Brazil.
Juan Jose Coello said he last spoke with his son shortly before he left for the mine Friday.
"I'm not asking for justice. Right now, I'm just asking that they return the body of my son, so I can give him a Christian burial," he told The Associated Press.
Henry Ramos, the president of Venezuela's opposition-controlled Congress, joined the families in accusing the state government of a cover-up.
"Amazing: 28 miners killed by government armed forces, and Gov. Rangel denies it," he wrote on Twitter.
Other opposition politicians said the killings followed a decade-long pattern of killings in the region, and compared the case to the disappearance of 43 Mexican college students in the hands of police in 2014.
The controversy comes days after the government announced a new plan to exploit mineral-rich areas in the region, where many foreign companies once operated mining concessions. Most of those projects have either been canceled or rendered inactive in recent years, and violent groups have moved in, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
"The area, located in the jungle and of difficult access, has been taken over by local gangs which continue profiting significantly from illegal mining and a weak state presence," Moya-Ocampos wrote in a note to investors.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier .