Representative of Venezuela's Pemon Indians says group to release soldiers held captive

A representative of Venezuela's Pemon Indians said Sunday that a group of men in a remote village plan to release several dozen soldiers they have been holding captive.

Alexis Romero said he had spoken with Pemon men in the village of Uriman, where members of the community decided they would release the soldiers after they reached an agreement with government representatives and military officers.

Romero said that people in the village, angered by what they perceive as abuses and mistreatment, had taken hostage a group of about 40 soldiers in protest last week.

Government and military officials have not commented on the incident, which has been widely reported in the Venezuelan news media. The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"This situation began due to abuses by soldiers," Romero said in a telephone interview from Santa Elena de Uairen, a town located near Venezuela's border with Brazil. Romero said some people were upset about soldiers routinely stopping Pemon Indians to search them for gold, often detaining them for several hours.

An estimated 30,000 Pemon inhabit Venezuela's vast Gran Sabana region in the eastern state of Bolivar, which is covered by rolling grasslands and dotted with plateaus. Some indigenous people rely on small-scale gold mining to make a living.

President Hugo Chavez's government, meanwhile, has been trying for years to crack down on illegal mining that tears up the forests and pollutes rivers.

Romero said that on Saturday members of the Pemon community met with government officials including Army Gen. Cliver Alcala Cordones and Indigenous Peoples Minister Aloha Nunez.

Romero said that as part of their agreement, government authorities pledged to investigate alleged abuses by soldiers and round up and deport undocumented foreigners, including Brazilians and Colombians, who are involved in illegal mining.

Romero also said the government officials had agreed to permit mining by the Indians.


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