Saturday, October 25, 2008

Colombian president to meet with Indian protest leaders

BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and leaders of a massive Indian protest plan to meet Sunday in the city of Cali.

The president spoke by phone Thursday evening with one protest leader, Daniel Pinacue, and said he looked forward to "comprehensive and constructive" dialogue, the Colombian government said.

Tens of thousands of Indians are marching from the mountains of southwest Colombia to Cali, a city of 2 million, to demand more land, better education and health care and protection from corporations encroaching on their ancestral land.

Colombia's 1.3 million Indians rank among the most impoverished of the country's 40 million people.

Protesters and police have clashed since demonstrations began October 10. At least four demonstrators have been killed and 130 wounded, Indian leaders said. They have accused government security forces of shooting at them. Watch as violence has marred the two-week-old struggle »

Authorities have denied the allegations and said some Indians have hurled rocks, thrown Molotov cocktails and homemade explosives at security forces. As many as 70 security force members, mainly riot police, have been hurt, the government has said.

Authorities also said some Indians have shot fellow demonstrators to stir up the crowd's anger.

After initially denying such accusations, Uribe admitted Wednesday that police had fired on Indian demonstrators last week despite a government pledge that security forces would not do so.

"The police did fire," Uribe said at a news conference after CNN obtained and aired a videotape that shows police at La Maria Indian reservation October 16 in southwestern Colombia. Watch as Uribe apologizes »

The patrolman who fired, Uribe said, was being attacked with explosives. His supervisors did not know he fired, the president said.

The Indians who have been killed died as a result of their explosives and not police bullets, Uribe said.

"This is a resistance movement," said protester Rodrigo Quira. "We don't agree with President Uribe's policies, and other groups are affected, too. That's why they're joining us."

The demonstrators have snaked along the Pan-American Highway, a major trade route in South America. They occasionally play traditional Indian songs that date to the time of the Spanish conquest, when many Indians across South and Central America died as a result of imported disease, slavery and warfare.

"I believe we have to forge strong alliances in our struggle to demand our rights," said Aida Quilcue, an Indian leader.

A member of Colombia's riot police force said, "The Indians are the worst because they're fighting with Molotov cocktails, gunpowder [in homemade explosives] and machetes."

In the five-minute phone call between Uribe and Pinacue, the president said both sides should talk this weekend "with a spirit of brotherhood," according to the Colombian government.

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