Rage grows in massacre of Indians Brazil intensifies search for killers

August 23, 1993|By New York Times News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- As outrage mounted over the massacre of 73 Indians by gold miners, President Itamar Franco yesterday called a meeting of the National Defense Council for today to enlist the help of the military in hunting down the killers. The council, made up of civilian and military officials, advises the president on national security.

The military has been hostile to Indian rights, but public calls for justice have been growing since Saturday, when the death toll in an attack on Yanomami Indians on Aug. 15 roughly doubled, to 73, making it the largest massacre of Indians in Brazil in this century.

Although sketchy reports of the attack, in a remote area of the Yanomami reservation near the Venezuelan border, had reached Rio and Brasilia by Wednesday, accounting for the dead has been difficult, because the remains of only five people have been found at the two lodges attacked by miners.

The investigation also has been hindered by customs of the Yanomami, who have very little contact with the outside world. The Yanomami are reluctant to pronounce names of the dead, whom they cremate, and their counting system does not go beyond two.

Among the 73 killed were 34 children and two pregnant women, said Francisco Bezerra de Lima, an official from Brazil's Indian protection agency.

Several bodies seen Thursday in the charred ruins of one lodge have disappeared, investigators say. Speculating that miners had returned and thrown the bodies in a nearby river, the Indian protection agency plans to search the river with divers.

The encroachment of gold miners into their remote forested homeland since the 1980s has devastated the Yanomami, who number about 10,000 in Brazil and 10,000 in Venezuela. Since 1987, about 1,500 Brazilian Yanomami have died of diseases contracted from outsiders, usually malaria and tuberculosis.

Fighting between miners and Indians is relatively rare, and the Yanomami are usually the victims. Justice Ministry officials said Saturday that the massacre may have been provoked by a fight last month in which several miners and Indians were killed.

News reports said Indians from the two lodges, in Hoximu, had apparently served as guides for soldiers in the Venezuelan National Guard who extorted gold from Brazilian miners operating on the Venezuelan side of the border. In reprisal, the Brazilian miners virtually exterminated the population of the two lodges, news reports quoted survivors yesterday as saying.

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