(Adds information on damages; adds group that claimed responsibility for attack)
SANTIAGO, Aug 28 (Reuters) - A group of armed men claiming to represent the nation’s indigenous Mapuche people hijacked and burned 29 logging trucks in southern Chile on Monday morning as a years-long conflict with forestry companies heated up.
The government convened an emergency meeting less than two weeks after a similar hijacking in which 18 trucks were burned, and several high-ranking officials denounced the attack later in the day.
“We’re going to combat violence and we are not going to allow minoritarian groups, which don’t value dialogue, to ruin the great effort all regional actors in the south are doing to promote development and overcome exclusion,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in televised remarks.
It was not clear to what extent the attacks have broader support among Mapuche communities. Many Mapuche leaders doubt all such attacks are carried out by indigenous people, saying non-indigenous groups with a radical political agenda may be involved.
The group Weichan Auka Mapu, or “Fight of the Rebel Territory” in the local Mapudungun tongue, claimed responsibility, national media reported.
According to local authorities, at least two people were responsible for the arson attack, although local media reported that as many as seven people were responsible.
Around 600,000 Mapuche live in Chile, concentrated in Araucania and Bio Bio, two lush and hilly provinces roughly 400 miles (645 km) south of Santiago, the nation’s capital.
Ever since the Chilean army invaded Mapuche territory in a brutal campaign in the late 1800s, relations with the state have been fractious.
The conflict has accelerated in recent years, with armed groups burning houses, churches, trucks, and forest plantations. It has also spread geographically. The Monday attack occurred in the region of Los Rios, south of the traditional conflict zone.
The trucks belonged to Sotraser, a subcontractor that mainly serves subsidiaries of Chilean forestry companies Empresas CMPC and Arauco.
The company reported $6 million in damages. While that figure is not significant in relation to Chile’s larger timber industry, subcontractors have begun to register dozens of attacks annually in recent years, weighing on the sector. (Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Sandra Maler)