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Bolivian president asks for forgiveness after attacks on indigenous groups

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:36 PM EDT, Thu September 29, 2011
Bolivian police clash with protesters Sunday during a march toward La Paz against a road project through indigenous land.
Bolivian police clash with protesters Sunday during a march toward La Paz against a road project through indigenous land.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Forgive me," Evo Morales says after police violence
  • Indigenous leaders fighting road project through their ancestral homeland
  • Groups vow to keep fighting project, which has been suspended
  • Police tear-gassed hundreds of protesters Sunday; marchers say four people were killed

(CNN) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized for the humiliation suffered by indigenous peoples at the hands of the police over the weekend, and said his government did not mandate the attacks, state media reported late Wednesday.

"We ask for forgiveness -- forgive me," Morales said, according to Bolivia's state news agency. "It was not an instruction by the president. No one in the government would have thought such an attack could happen to our indigenous brothers."

On Sunday, 500 police tear-gassed and rousted about half of 1,500 indigenous protesters making a 300-mile march to the capital, La Paz, to protest a road project through a national park on their ancestral homeland. The marchers say four people were killed, scores of protesters were injured and several others were missing. On Monday, Bolivian officials denied any deaths or injuries but promised to launch a full-scale investigation into the raid, which they said was undertaken to save lives and avoid confrontations.

Bolivian indigenous leaders have vowed to keep fighting the project even though Morales said Monday he would suspend construction pending a national dialogue.

Indigenous leaders, who maintain the marchers were unarmed, expressed their skepticism Tuesday over Morales' statement.

"We don't believe what he says anymore," said Rosario Barradas, a leader of the Conference of Indigenous People.

"We are reorganizing to continue this," Barradas told CNN. "We are not going to stop until this is solved.

Monday night's concession to suspend construction "will lower pressure but won't solve the problem," said Jaime Aparicio, the Bolivian ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006. "This is not an easy problem to solve."

At the heart of the dispute lies the construction of a highway through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, a rainforest preserve commonly known by its Spanish acronym of TIPNIS. The road, being constructed mostly by a Brazilian company, aims to give Brazil access to Pacific Ocean ports by connecting to highways in Chile and Peru.

Brazil's National Bank for Economic and Social Development is financing $330 million of the road's estimated $415 million cost, the Bolivian government has said.

"There's a lot of money involved," said journalist Martin Arostegui, who has lived in Bolivia for the past five years.

That money has an even bigger impact on Bolivia, one of the poorest and least developed nations in Latin America. About one of every three Bolivians lives below the poverty level.

"The rights of indigenous people are recognized on paper, but, unfortunately, when it comes to these big economic projects that come from the top down, these rights get swept by the wayside," said Andrew Miller, a spokesman for the Amazon Watch advocacy group.

There also are social concerns for a large indigenous population that is used to living in relative isolation, said Miller, the Amazon Watch spokesman.

The indigenous movement has been on the upswing since 1990, when a large march to La Paz helped to solidify their power.

That burgeoning power seemed to come to fruition in December 2005, when Morales was elected the nation's first indigenous president. Running on a platform of empowering the nation's indigenous majority, Morales won by the widest margin of any candidate since the restoration of civilian rule in 1982.

He easily won re-election in December 2009, when his party also gained control of the nation's legislature.

Now many of those indigenous supporters feel Morales has deserted them.

"Evo Morales' government does not respect human rights," said indigenous leader Barradas. "Of course, we are betrayed because the indigenous people supported him to establish a plurinational government."

The Bolivian government extolled the supposed benefits area residents would receive from the road, saying it would help the indigenous receive better health care and education. Indigenous from at least 16 communities expressed their support for it.

But many indigenous remained steadfastly opposed and were marching to La Paz when police swooped in Sunday afternoon near the town of Yucumo and carted many of them off in buses. Authorities aimed to disperse the protesters by putting them on planes and flying them home.

The marchers were resting, cooking dinner, washing clothes and bathing when police arrived, Barradas said.

"We were surprised, ambushed, assaulted and abducted by the police," she said Monday afternoon, about 24 hours after the raid.

Police efforts were thwarted, though, when local indigenous people shut down two airports and freed many of those who had been apprehended by police. All the protesters apparently had gained their freedom by Tuesday.

The Bolivian government initially said the police intervention had been done to protect the marchers.

"The only reason for the action that was taken was to avoid a confrontation between civilians," Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti said Monday morning.

Problems started to build for Morales, though, a short while later when Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon resigned in protest over the police intervention.

By Monday afternoon, the government had ordered an investigation into whether "excessive force" had been used.

Late Monday night, Morales said he would suspend construction during this "national debate," saying the public would decide the road's fate.

CNN's Nelson Quinones and Arthur Brice contributed to this report.

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