SANTIAGO, Chile – Chilean police on Monday clashed with hooded vandals who infiltrated a protest by Mapuche Indians demanding land rights and autonomy.
Police shot tear gas and water cannons when the demonstration by 3,000 Mapuches in Chile's capital turned violent. Sixteen people were arrested.
The rally was timed to protest a national holiday for "Dia de La Raza," which celebrates the first encounter by Native Americans and Europeans during Christopher Columbus' arrival to America.
Protesters also demanded the release of four Mapuches who have been on a hunger strike for more than 50 days after they were accused of the attempted murder of Chilean police officers and carrying weapons illegally during a raid.
Military police Gen. Rodolfo Pacheco blamed anarchist groups for infiltrating Monday's demonstration and vandalizing several bank branches. Marches in Chile demanding improvements in education and land reforms are common and generally peaceful, but often end with clashes between police and a minority of hooded anarchist activists armed with rocks and molotov cocktails.
"Unfortunately, these social rejects of the CRA anarchist group who also caused damaged at last year's Dia de La Raza... infiltrated into the march wearing hoods and looted banks like Santander, BBVA and Itau, which was the worst damaged," Pacheco said.
Officials say the demonstration in Santiago is now under control and members of the tribe are showcasing cultural events in a downtown park. Many danced in traditional clothes and carried banners bashing the arrival of Columbus.
"Today is a day of protest, not of celebration because there's nothing to celebrate," Mapuche Leader Natividad Llanquileo told state TV. "We're going to insist on the freedom of the Mapuche people."
The Mapuches, which means "people of the land" in their native language, fiercely resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until the late 19th century that they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 550 kilometers south of the capital. Most now live in poverty.
Mapuche demonstrations demanding land rights have flared up in recent months in Auracania. Logging trucks were burned by unidentified attackers earlier this year and small groups of tribesmen have periodically attacked police. But police officers have also been accused of violent abuses in the indigenous communities.
The Mapuches accused of violent acts against police — Daniel Levinao and Paulino Levipan — were sentenced to 12 years in prison, while cousins Eric and Rodrigo Montoya await trial.
The four members of the Wente Winkul Mapu community were taken from prison to a hospital for treatment after they lost between 8 and 13 kilograms during the hunger strike, which began on August 27.
The tribesmen remain conscious and their vital signs, pulse and temperature are normal, Sergio Opazo, director of the Concepcion hospital where they are held, told local radio Bio Bio.
Mapuche leaders say they will go to the Supreme Court to protest the planned force feeding. Amnesty International says the Mapuches have a right to demonstrate and to reject medical treatment including food.
President Sebastian Pinera will visit the areas where police and Mapuches have clashed on Tuesday.
Follow AP's Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao