SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A resistance group formed by the indigenous Mapuche people claimed responsibility on Thursday for arson attacks in southern Chile that have once again cast the country's long-simmering Mapuche conflict into public view.
The group, calling itself 'Weichan Auka Mapu' in the Mapudungun tongue, which means 'Fight of the Rebel Territory,' said it had burned five churches since March 1.
The group also claimed responsibility for attacks on over 30 vehicles, including buses, since May 2013, 15 attacks on residences, and multiple attacks on police officers. Dozens of pieces of agricultural and logging equipment have also been burned by the group, it said.
The Weichan Auka Mapu group has said it is attempting to regain land lost during Chile's nineteenth century expansion southward into Mapuche-held territory.
"In terms of resistance, we incorporate an armed element as an obligatory response to the systemic violence that the Chilean state has exercised against the Mapuche people," Weichan Auka Mapu said in a statement sent to local media and published on werken.cl, a non-profit website that serves as a forum for Mapuche issues.
Individuals and groups claiming to represent Mapuche interests have in recent years set fire to fields, forests, vehicles, machinery and residences in south-central Chile, leading to deaths and tens of millions of dollars in damage.
The area is also the center of the country's important forestry and paper industry, and the trucks and machinery used by businesses have often been the target of arson attacks and hijackings. Truck drivers have led recent protests demanding greater security.
Churches have also been targeted in arson attacks. In its statement, the Weichan Auka Mapu blamed the Catholic Church for "complicity" in the taking of Mapuche lands.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)