Peasant Movement Leader Assassinated in Paraguay

Gunmen have assassinated Vidal Vega, one of the surviving leaders of Paraguay's peasant movement whose land dispute with a powerful politician prompted the end of Fernando Lugo's presidency last June.

Vega, 48, was hit four times early Saturday by bullets from a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38-caliber revolver fired by two unidentified men who sped away on a motorcycle, according to an official report prepared at the police headquarters in the provincial capital of Curuguaty.

A friend, Mario Espinola, told The Associated Press that Vega was shot down when he stepped outside to feed his farm animals.

Vega was among the public faces of a commission of landless peasants from the settlement of Yby Pyta, which means Red Dirt in their native Guarani language.

He had lobbied the government for many years to redistribute some of the ranchland that Colorado Party Sen. Blas Riquelme began occupying in the 1960s.

By last May, the peasants finally lost patience and moved onto the land. A firefight during their eviction on June 15 killed 11 peasants and six police officers, prompting the Colorado Party and other leading parties to vote Lugo out of office for allegedly mismanaging the dispute.

Twelve suspects, nearly all of them peasants from Yby Pyta, have been jailed without formal charges since then on suspicion of murdering the officers, seizing property and resisting authority. The prosecutor had six months to develop the case and will present his findings Dec. 16.

Vega was expected to be a witness at the criminal trial, since he was among the few leaders who weren't killed in the clash or jailed afterward.

He wasn't charged because he was away getting supplies when the violence erupted at the settlement erected by the peasants inside Riquelme's ranch, the Naranjaty Commission's secretary, Martina Paredes, told the AP.

"We think he was assassinated by hit men who were sent, we don't know by whom, perhaps to frighten us and frustrate our fight to recover the state lands that were illegally taken by Riquelme," she said.

Riquelme, who died of natural causes about a month after the battle in June, occupied the land during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, whose government gave away land for free to anyone willing to put it to productive use.

A local court in Curuguaty upheld Riquelme's claim to the land years later. Lugo's government later sought to overturn the decision, but the case remains tied up in court.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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