A suspected arson attack has destroyed the home of an indigenous Mapuche chief in Chile, as tensions rise over a recent surge in forest fires.
The blaze occurred in Araucania, a region beset with land conflict, reported the BBC. The Chilean government has accused the Mapuche people of setting a number of recent forest fires, including one that killed seven firefighters last week. Mapuche chief Jose Santos Millao’s home was destroyed while he was attending a funeral for the firefighters.
Mapuche groups are campaigning to recover ancestral lands from forestry companies. Last week, Chile’s Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said the radical Mapuche group Coordinadora Arauco Malleco may have been responsible for starting the recent fires. President Sebastian Pinera said arson was a form of terrorism and invoked an anti-terrorist law to pursue those responsible, reported the Associated Press.
Mapuche activists countered that the government was trying to criminalize their movement, and local residents accused the government of not giving the firefighters enough training and support to control the blazes. Fires have recently destroyed more than 500 square-kilometers of forest in the area.
Hours after Millao’s home was burned, hooded men also set fire to the home of a retired military officer and shot at police officers in the area, reported the Latin American Herald Tribune. Special forces agents were dispatched to the scene and exchanged shots with the masked men.
There were reports that military police conducted raids on a number of Mapuche communities later on Sunday, and of injuries from gunshot wounds and tear gas, but Chilean police denied the raids took place.
The Mapuches, who number about 600,000, are concentrated in La Araucania area, where they have been campaigning since the 1990s for the return of their ancestral land from logging and forestry companies.