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Ecuador, Indians trade blame for bloody clash

QUITO, Ecuador - QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The government and Amazon Indians traded blame Thursday for a battle in Ecuador's southeastern jungle that authorities said killed at least one Indian and wounded 40 police and nine Indians.

The Indians accused President Rafael Correa of "declaring a civil war" against them, while Correa said the Indians are putting the country at risk.

Indian groups in Ecuador have been protesting proposed laws that would allow mining on their lands without their consent and put water resources under state control, and Correa stoked their anger earlier this year by calling them "infantile" for objecting to the legislation.

The bloody confrontation happened Wednesday on the Upano River in the province of Morona Santiago — recalling a similar clash in June in neighboring Peru in which at least 33 people were killed when police broke up a roadblock by Indians protesting government development decrees.

"Tremendously violent groups armed with shotguns and rifles waited for police and met them with gunshots," Correa told reporters late Wednesday.

On Thursday, he said "no group is above the state" and accused the protesters of "playing with the future of our children."

Ecuador's Amazon Indian federation said 500 police provoked the violence by attacking Shuar Indians who were blocking a major road with rocks, tree trunks and burning tires.

The federation, CONFENAIE, said two Indians were killed and nine wounded by gunshots. It said Correa's government "has blood on its hands" and promised international legal action over violations of the Indians' "collective and human rights."

It also demanded Correa travel to the Amazon and meet with protesters. Correa said he was open to dialogue, but in the capital.

Government Minister Gustavo Jalkh said the 40 wounded police were hit by shotgun pellets. He said police used "progressive force" to clear the highway blockade — but denied they fired guns.

A Shuar leader, Rafael Pandam, told reporters in Macas, a town near the clash site, that Correa "has declared war on our indigenous peoples" and said the Indians would use force, if necessary, to defend their dignity.

"If there are 1,000 dead they will be good deaths," he said.

Humberto Cholango, a leader of Ecuador's powerful national Indian confederation, CONAIE, declared a "permanent mobilization," while the president of CONFENIAE, Tito Puenchir, issued a statement accusing Correa of "declaring a civil war." He appealed to the United Nations and the Organization of American States to intervene.

Correa, a popular leftist president, has angered Ecuador's indigenous peoples, who account for about 35 percent of the country's 14.5 million people, by calling them "infantile minorities" for opposing the draft mining and water laws, which they fear will despoil their ancestral lands.

Those lands are rich in deposits of gold, copper and other minerals.

The laws are expected to be passed by the National Assembly, which Correa's party and its allies control. Correa says the Indians are wrong to interpret the water law as meaning the government intends to privatize water.

CONAIE launched a nationwide protest Monday against the laws, but called it off after limited turnout. The Amazon federation, however, continued with its highway blockades.

The Shuar, who dominate Ecuador's southeastern jungles, 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.

Its sister federation in Peru organized protests that ended in June with the government crackdown at the highway blockade in Bagua put up by Awajun and Wampi Indians, close ethnic relatives of the Shuar.

Peru's Amazon Indians were protesting a packet of pro-investment decrees issued by Peru's conservative government to open the Indians' ancestral lands to more oil, mining and logging.

The environmental group Amazon Watch called for a full investigation of the violence in Ecuador and said it indicated a trend in the region "where governments are failing to obtain buy-in from a critical sector of their civil society whose existence predates the nation states and who are providing vital stewardship of forests and biodiversity."

Indian peoples battling development have been increasingly flexing their muscles up and down the Andes ridge after toppling governments in Ecuador and Bolivia beginning in the 1990s.

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Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.

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