Panama police, indigenous clash over blockade

February 5, 2012 - 8:45 PM
APTOPIX Panama Protest

Riot police run to clear a road blockade set by members of the Ngobe-Bugle ethnic group at the Pan American highway in El Vigui, Panama, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. Ngobe-Bugle people blocked roads in two provinces on the border with Costa Rica to protest against mineral exploitation on their lands. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Police fired tear gas Sunday to clear blockades of the Pan-American highway by indigenous groups protesting changes to the mining law. One person was killed and 39 injured in the resulting clashes.

Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said police broke up the blockades after members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe in western Panama refused calls for dialogue.

Protest leader Liborio Miranda said a 26-year-old indigenous man was shot dead in the chest.

"It was a cowardly attack," Miranda said of the early morning police operation. Indigenous activists had started blocking the key highway linking Panama and Costa Rica on Monday.

In retaliation, protesters burned a police station in retaliation in San Felix, located 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of the capital.

Mulino denied the use of lethal force and told a television station the cause of the man's death was unknown. He said demonstrators threw stones at officers.

Mulino said later in a news conference that the outcome of the clashes was one person dead along with 32 protesters and seven police officers injured. He added that the gun that killed the protester was not police issue. Forty-one protesters were detained.

He said police only acted after the blockades had created an "unsustainable situation."

The blockages of various parts of the highway had stranded travelers, mainly from other Central American countries, and created a huge traffic jam of trucks and cars.

The indigenous groups were protesting a decision by a legislative committee to lift a suspension of mining and reservoir construction in their region.