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25 June 2024

Foul play suspected in arson attacks in Chile


The home of a Mapuche Indian leader in Chile was destroyed in a suspicious blaze on Sunday in an area ravaged by forest fires, which officials say may have been caused by radical indigenous activists.

Police said hooded assailants also torched the home of a retired military officer and fired at officers in the forest region of Araucania, as seven firefighters killed there last week in a massive wildfire were buried Sunday.

Jose Santos Millao, who represents the Mapuche Indians on the National Corporation for Indigenous Development, told reporters his house had "no electricity," making the source of the blaze suspicious. No one was hurt.

An unusually hot and dry start to the Chilean summer has seen more than 50 wildfires, fanned by high winds, burn down scores of homes and destroy some 50,000 hectares (123,000 acres) of woodland and brush over the past 10 days.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera invoked controversial anti-terror legislation after the seven firefighters -- private contractors for forestry company Mininco -- were killed on Thursday in a mountain forest near Carahue.

"We have reliable information that makes us presume there is criminal intent behind these fires," Pinera said.

Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter hinted that the blazes may have been the work of the Arauco-Malleco Coordination Group (CAM), a fringe group of Mapuche land activists that had claimed arson attacks that destroyed a firefighting helicopter and other forestry vehicles on December 30.

Araucania is a hub for the Mapuche Indians, who make up six percent of Chile's 18-million-strong population. Mapuche activists claim their ancestral lands in the region have been taken over by forestry companies.

Activists have carried out sporadic attacks or acts of sabotage in recent years against corporate holdings or the installations of security forces. Three Mapuche activists were killed in clashes with police about 10 years ago.

Fires have also struck the forest regions of Biobio and Maule, some 500 to 700 kilometers (310 to 435 miles) south of the capital Santiago.

One five-day inferno destroyed some 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of the Torres del Paine National Park, a natural wilderness in Patagonia that has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.