CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities said on Sunday they were investigating the alleged killings of a group of miners in the jungle state of Bolivar, following reports they were gruesomely murdered in a fight for control of a gold deposit.
Citing people who reported witnessing the incident, family members and opposition politicians said a gang shot and dismembered with a chainsaw as many as 28 miners on Friday in a battle for the Atenas wildcat mine.
Families have blocked a main street in the nearby town of Tumeremo to seek information about the missing miners.
One man said his son and a friend were nearing the deposit on a motorbike when they were stopped at a checkpoint where he said gang members and men in security forces’ uniforms were holding miners captive.
“He tried to escape, but was shot,” the man said of his son. The man, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisals, cited his son’s friend who escaped.
“They forced the (other) miners to pick up the bodies and throw them into a truck. They threw my son’s remains” in another mine, added the man, who said his child used mining to finance his legal studies.
State Governor Francisco Rangel on Saturday denied a massacre had occurred, accusing “irresponsible politicians” of seeking to stir unrest with false information.
Rangel, a member of the ruling Socialist Party, said there had been a shootout between gangs but that no one had been hurt. Security officials examined the site of the alleged massacre, he added, and did not find suggestions or proof of killings.
Venezuela’s public prosecutor’s office said it had appointed two investigators, without providing further details.
The country’s opposition accused the government of trying to cover up the incident.
“Who is (Rangel) protecting or what is he hiding?” said opposition lawmaker Americo De Grazia, from Bolivar, who told Reuters he had spoken to two witnesses.
The opposition accuses some members of Venezuela’s military of participating in the lucrative illegal mining trade in a violent area near the borders of Guyana and Brazil.
“The governor’s statement that nothing has happened here is illogical,” said Carlos Chancellor, mayor of Sifontes municipality where Atenas mine is located. “There are witnesses here who say they were shot and killed.”
The government says troops in the area defend the environment and local inhabitants from illegal miners, and often accuses the opposition of smearing the army.
Additional reporting by Lenin Danieri in Bolivar; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Peter Cooney