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World News

U.N. Human Rights team probes spike in tension in Chile`s restive Araucania

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed on Saturday that it had sent a fact-finding team to Chile’s restive Araucania region where a jailed indigenous Mapuche leader has spent more than 100 days on hunger strike over his detention during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The OHCHR said in a communique that its team had visited the hospital in the regional capital Temuco where Celestino Cordova was being treated as well as prisons where at least 20 other Mapuche convicts are on hunger strike.

It said it had met police, prosecutors and business representatives, and indigenous leaders who laid allegations of forced evictions from council property, excessive or unnecessary use of force by the authorities and racial discrimination.

The Mapuche are famous for their fierce resistance to the Spanish conquest of Chile and have for decades been fighting for what they deem their ancestral land against landowners and the wood pulp industry.

Cordova was jailed for 18 years in 2014 for his participation in the killing of an elderly landowning couple in an arson attack.

His case has raised tensions in Chile already heightened by several months of social protests over inequality, and deepening economic hardships because of COVID.

It has sparked protests and arson attacks in southern Araucania and elsewhere in the country. In Santiago’s Plaza Italia on Friday night police broke up with water cannons and made several arrests.

Cordova has been on hunger strike for 104 days over the courts’ rejection of his appeal to be transferred to house arrest because of the pandemic.

In July, after his health deteriorated, Temuco’s appeals court ordered a hospital to intervene including against his will.

On Friday, the government told Cordova he could return home to conduct an important Mapuche blessing ceremony of a totem carved into a tree if he ceased his hunger strike.

“Both the government and various national and international organizations have made every effort to bring positions closer,” the justice ministry said in a statement.

In an audio message circulated on social media purportedly recorded by Cordova, he said he would start a liquids strike, and accused President Sebastian Pinera of lacking the “wisdom” to resolve the conflict.

“Because he is not up to the task, he will finally kill me,” he allegedly said.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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