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Pinera pledges probe of Mapuche death amid protests

2 min

Santiago (AFP)

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera on Thursday pledged an investigation into the police killing of a young Mapuche man that sparked protests and firebomb attacks and revived allegations of state persecution of indigenous people.

Pinera described the killing as "lamentable" but gave his backing to the police unit that carried out the operation.

In Santiago, riot-police used water-cannon and tear gas to push back around 100 protesters demonstrating outside the government headquarters.

A church, holiday resort and a house were hit by early morning arson attacks in the Araucania region in southern Chile, a day after the killing of 24-year-old Camilo Catrillanca in a police operation.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Pinera said the government "will exhaust means to investigate the truth of what happened," requesting a full-time prosecutor be dedicated to the case.

"At the same time, we stand by the Carabineros in their duty to pursue crimes and their right to defend themselves when attacked," the president said on Twitter.

Catrillanca was driving a tractor accompanied by a young boy when he was shot dead.

Police said they were searching for a group of hooded men who took refuge in the local community after they had tried to attack teachers and students leaving a nearby college.

Carabineros chief Hermes Soto insisted there was no "ethnic situation" associated with the police operation.

"It is a common crime committed by people who have criminal records," he told reporters on Wednesday.

The police operation in which the young Mapuche was killed was carried out by the so-called Jungle Commando, a special unit of the Carabineros paramilitary police -- some of whose members were trained in Colombia -- to counter Mapuche unrest.

-'No provocation'-

Catrillanca "was coming to work in a tractor when he was confronted by the Jungle Commando who opened fire without any provocation," said Karina Riquelme, a Mapuche community lawyer.

The Chilean state has long been accused of discrimination against the Mapuche people, who centuries ago controlled vast areas of Chile but have since been marginalized.

Pinera's predecessor, Michelle Bachelet -- now the UN Commissioner for Human Rights -- apologized on behalf of the nation to the Mapuche for the "horrors" of post-colonial abuse they suffered.

Mapuche protesters disrupted a speech by Bachelet in Geneva on Wednesday, accusing her of complicity in the persecution of their people.

Considered the earliest inhabitants of parts of Chile, the Mapuche fought against the Spanish conquerors and later the Chilean army after the country's independence in the 19th century.

Their numbers were reduced to only 700,000, a fraction of Chile's current population of 17 million.

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