Venezuelan official: no sign of killings in Amazon

A team of Venezuelan officials who traveled to the Amazon to investigate a report of a mass killing in an indigenous community have found no evidence of any killings, government officials said.

Minister for Indigenous Peoples Nicia Maldonado said Saturday that the team traveled by helicopter to a remote jungle area where a Yanomami Indian group last week reported it had received word of a massacre of unknown proportions in July, with perhaps dozens slain by gold miners.

"No evidence of any death was found," Maldonado told state television. She said officials hadn't found any burned communal hut, which the indigenous group said had been reported by people who visited the community and talked with survivors.

Leaders of the Horonami Yanomami Organization, the community group that released the account last week, couldn't be reached for comment on Sunday.

Christina Haverkamp, an indigenous rights activist in Germany, said she thinks it's possible the officials who traveled to the area simply didn't find the community in question, and should keep investigating. Based on the account of the indigenous group, she said, "I think there were killings."

"If they want to find the truth, they will only find the truth (working) together with the Yanomami," Haverkamp said in a phone interview on Sunday from Hamburg.

Haverkamp has worked among the Yanomami for two decades in Venezuela and Brazil, and knows a little of their language. She said finding out what happened, or a possible death toll, is complicated in part because the Yanomami generally avoid talking about the dead and typically use "a lot" when describing numbers higher than three.

Luis Shatiwe, a leader of the Horonami Yanomami group, said last week that the account of killings had been relayed through villagers in nearby communities. He said that people from the village of Hokomawe reportedly had seen victims' charred remains in the nearby community of Irotatheri and had talked with three survivors who had been hunting in the forest at the time of the violence. He said that account had later been relayed to others in the village of Momoi, and to others in the larger community of Parima.

He said last week that it was unclear how many people were killed, but that villagers had sent word that about 80 people lived in Irotatheri and that they found only three survivors who had fled.

"They should find the survivors, and they should interview the survivors," Haverkamp said of the officials who are carrying out the investigation.

National Guard Gen. Jose Eliecer Pinto Gutierrez told the Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias, in its Sunday edition, that he and other officials had visited four indigenous communities near the border with Brazil and "everything is fine there." He said they had visited the communities of Momoi, Uchiche and Plantanal, though the newspaper report didn't mention the community of Irotatheri.

The team that traveled to the jungle area was composed of military officers, prosecutors and other officials. A journalist from the government-supported television network Telesur went with them, and posted photos on Twitter of some of the people who were interviewed in Yanomami communities.

Pinto told Ultimas Noticias that they left a group of soldiers behind to patrol the area.