By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKERCARACAS, Venezuela (AP) â¿¿ A representative of Venezuela's Pemon Indians said Sunday that men in a remote village released several dozen soldiers they had been holding captive. Levi Gonzalez said he had spoken with Pemon men in the village of Uriman, where members of the community decided to free the soldiers after government representatives agreed to allow them to keep mining and to avoid prosecution for seizing the soldiers. Gonzalez said dozens of people in the village and nearby communities, angered over abuses by soldiers and military operations aimed at dismantling gold mining equipment and camps, had taken 43 soldiers as hostages Thursday. "That's what brought us to such an extreme," Gonzalez said in a telephone interview from Santa Elena de Uairen, a town near Venezuela's border with Brazil. "Mining has always been part of our way of life. We are not getting rich, just surviving." Gonzalez said that on Saturday members of the Pemon community met with government officials including Army Gen. Cliver Alcala Cordones and Indigenous Peoples Minister Aloha Nunez. The soldiers were released Saturday evening and Sunday, and the protesters returned weapons that had been taken from the soldiers and hidden in the jungle, Gonzalez said. Government and military officials did not comment on the incident, which was widely reported in Venezuelan news media. The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. "This situation began due to abuses by soldiers," said Alexis Romero, a Pemon activist. He said soldiers routinely stop Pemon Indians to search them for gold, often detaining them for several hours. An estimated 30,000 Pemon live in Venezuela's vast Gran Sabana region in the eastern state of Bolivar, which is covered by rolling grasslands and dotted with plateaus. President Hugo Chavez's government has been trying for years to crack down on illegal mining that tears up the forests and pollutes rivers.
Gonzalez said the government officials agreed to permit mining by the Indians and promised not to prosecute tribal leaders responsible for taking the soldiers hostage and temporarily confiscating their weapons.Romero said by telephone that under the agreement government authorities also pledged to investigate alleged abuses by soldiers and to round up and deport some foreigners, including Brazilians and Colombians, who are involved in illegal mining. ___ Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker