LAS CANOAS, Colombia (AP) -- Leaders of a Colombian indigenous
tribe said they will not give in to a U.S. company's plans to drill for oil in
their traditional lands, even after riot police clashed with Indian protesters
blocking a road to the area.
"This is our land. We will not leave it," Roberto Perez, head of the U'wa
nation's council of leaders, said on Saturday.
There were reports from tribal leaders that as many as five children fell
fast-flowing river and may have drowned in the confusion after a clash. But
the reports could not be confirmed. No bodies have been found, and police
have denied reports of deaths in Friday's violence.
Reporters visiting the remote area in northeastern Colombia during the
heard conflicting versions of what happened when police broke up the protest,
which highlights the intensity of a long-running dispute over the U'wa tribe's claim
to land it considers sacred.
For weeks, members of the tribe have occupied land just outside their
reservation on which the U.S. oil company Occidental Petroleum wants to
begin exploratory drilling.
Although the drilling site lies outside tribal lands, the U'wa say they
oil exploration would bring violence and destroy their culture.
About 150 riot police on Friday flew by helicopter to Las Canoas, 210
miles northeast of Bogota, to disperse the hundreds of Indians who had
blocked the dusty road leading to the Occidental drilling site.
The police fired tear gas at the protesters, who were armed with wooden
clubs and bows and arrows. Six Indians suffered cuts and bruises, while two
police agents suffered minor wounds from the tribe's metal-tipped arrows.
The highway was reopened in the mountainous region near the Venezuelan
border, and on Saturday construction trucks rolled past the scene of the previous
day's violence, heading for the site where Los Angeles-based Occidental hopes to
find up to 2 billion barrels of crude. The company could not immediately be
reached for comment.
Protesters lined the edge of the road facing a picket of riot police.
"I'm not moving. This is my land, and nobody is taking it from me," said
Pastor Bocota, who said his four-month-old daughter died after riot police
broke up the protest.
Communication with the U'wa is sometimes difficult because many of them
don't speak Spanish. But one Indian girl, 9-year-old Kesiowia Bocota, told
reporters through an interpreter that she had lost Pastor Bocota's baby while
trying to cross the river. The girl, who is not related to the man or the baby,
said the infant slipped from her arms.
Activists from the U.S.-based groups Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action
Network previously told reporters that three children had died during the
Regional police commander Col. Raul Cepeda, said that the incident would
be investigated, but U'wa leaders were unimpressed.
"They can say what they like, but it's their fault. They will have to pay
these lives," said Ebaristo Cobaria, the tribe's legal adviser.
The clash pits the 8,000-member tribe against the energy needs of an oil-rich
country of 40 million people whose leaders say Colombia will have to import
oil within the next decade if it can't exploit its own reserves.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press