BOGOTA - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe acknowledged on Wednesday police had opened fire on indigenous protesters during demonstrations for land rights and against a free trade agreement with the United States.
At least two indigenous protesters died during marches earlier this week. The government says tests show they were killed when a home-made bomb exploded as they handled it while community leaders say the men were shot by security forces.
The controversy broke as Uribe, a key U.S. ally, lobbied Democrats in the U.S. Congress to approve the trade deal he says will consolidate gains made against leftist guerrillas. But Democrats want him to do more to protect human rights, especially those of labour leaders.
The shooting incident came as thousands of Colombians from various indigenous groups marched on the city of Cali to demand the government live up to promises to protect their lands, defend them against violence and reconsider the trade pact.
"An investigation shows that yes, police did open fire. An officer ... admits opening fire because they were being attacked with explosives," Uribe said during a late-night broadcast.
Still, "medical exams show the indigenous people died not from gunshots from security forces but from explosives," he said.
Uribe's statement came after CNN broadcast a videotape it said was made by marchers. It shows a uniformed man with his face covered opening fire with a rifle. The target is not clear, but riot police moved aside to let him shoot.
Police have clashed over a week with the indigenous groups, who authorities say have blocked a major highway, using home-made weapons, sticks and machetes. At least 32 police have been wounded and one lost his hands in an explosion, the government says.
Authorities have accused the FARC rebel group of helping provoke the violence, a charge indigenous leaders reject.
Colombia's long rebel conflict has eased as the FARC has been driven back into remote areas and Uribe has negotiated the surrender of thousands of paramilitaries who once committed massacres and stole land in the name of counter-insurgency.
Colombia has 85 indigenous ethnic groups with a population of around 1 million who have been among the most victimized people in the country's four-decade conflict. Violence still displaces thousands of people from their homes each year.
Rights groups say the conflict has pushed at least six indigenous groups to the brink of extinction as they are caught in the cross-fire between armed groups often battling for control of lucrative cocaine-producing territories.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota