Ecuador: 1 dead, at least 49 wounded in protest

QUITO, Ecuador – Police on Wednesday battled Amazon Indians protesting laws they believe would encourage oil drilling and mining on their lands, leaving one Indian dead and 40 police and nine Indians wounded, officials said. Indians said two civilians were killed.

"Tremendously violent groups armed with shotguns and rifles waited for police and met them with gunshots," President Rafael Correa said in a late news conference.

The clash took place on the Upano River in Ecuador's southeastern Morona Santiago jungle province where Indian groups have been blocking roads this week.

Correa, a popular leftist president, blamed the Indians for the bloodshed and repeated his call for dialogue to resolve the Indians' complaints.

Humberto Cholango, a leader of Ecuador's powerful national Indian confederation, CONAIE, blamed Correa for the violence and declared a "permanent mobilization" against his government.

The Amazon Indians fear Correa will despoil their ancestral lands. He has called them infantile for opposing laws that would deny them prior consultation before exploiting their lands for mining and oil extraction.

Government Minister Gustavo Jalkh said earlier that the wounded police had been hit with pellets. He said police used "progressive force" to clear a highway blockade, but denied they fired guns.

Ecuador's Amazon Indian federation, CONFENAIE, said in a communique that two Shuar Indians were killed and nine wounded by gunshots in the clash. They did not identify the Indians.

Ecuadorean Indians have blocked highways since Monday to protest the laws. The national Indian confederation called off the protests the same day amid limited turnout across five provinces, but CONFENAIE has continued its blockades.

The Shuar Indians involved in Wednesday's violence dominate the jungles of southeastern Ecuador, where they have mounted the fiercest resistance to oil exploration since it began in the region in the early 1970s. Various indigenous groups in the Amazon, led by the Shuar, created CONFENIAE in 1980.

Across the Andean region, Indians are fighting left- and right-wing governments that are pushing ambitious oil and mining-led development plans.

In Peru, a government crackdown at an Amazon highway blockade left at least 23 police and 10 Indians dead in June. The Indians were protesting a packet of pro-investment decrees issued by Peru's conservative government to open their ancestral lands to oil and mining projects.

There also have been sporadic clashes in Chile, where the country's largest Indian tribe is pressing demands for political autonomy by occupying farmland and burning farm machinery.

In Ecuador, CONAIE split with Correa when he refused to grant Indians the right to veto concessions granted to companies exploiting natural resources on their lands under a constitution approved last year.

Indian groups say the proposed laws they are opposing threaten their lands and will privatize water resources. Correa says he has no plans to privatize water resources.

The laws are expected to be passed by the National Assembly, controlled by Correa's party and its allies.

So far, this week's disjointed mobilization has paled in comparison to previous CONAIE protests that helped oust Ecuadorean presidents in 2000 and 2005.

A member of the special warfare command poses for photographs as he parachutes from a helicopter near Seoul. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak