Suspicious fire ruins Indian leader's family home

AP News
Posted: Jan 08, 2012 3:13 PM
Suspicious fire ruins Indian leader's family home

The family home of one of Chile's top Indian leaders was destroyed Sunday in a suspicious fire. Hours later, hooded gunmen attacked the home of a retired military official and set it ablaze.

The apparent arsons happened in an area of the Araucania region in southern Chile where Mapuche Indians and Chile's largest forestry companies have been mired in land conflicts. The area also is suffering from dozens of wildfires that have broken out as unusually high temperatures and dry weather turn pine forests into tinderbeds.

Seven firefighters employed by the Mininco Forestry company were killed last week fighting one of those wildfires. The cause remains under investigation. Local officials initially blamed the fire on people burning wood to make charcoal, but Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter accused Mapuche Indian land activists of starting the blaze. Local residents, meanwhile, accused the government of not giving the firefighters enough training and support.

President Sebastian Pinera called it terror, and gave authorities more power under Chile's tough anti-terrorism law to crack down on those responsible.

Jose Santos Millao, director of the National Corporation for Indigenous Development, said invoking Chile's tough terror law against the Mapuche even before the fires' causes could be determined amounted to a "declaration of war for our people."

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Then, just as Millao and his family were attending the firefighters funeral, his parents' home burned down in a suspicious fire. Hours later, a group of hooded men torched the home of a retired military officer. Hundreds of police officers then converged on nearby Indian communities Sunday.

"It is not normal that this is occurring in Chile. Now, why? You have to ask those responsible for these crimes," said Gen. Ivan Bezmalinovic, the local police chief.