A land dispute on Easter Island turned violent on Friday when riot police evicting islanders from their ancestral home were surrounded by rock-throwing protesters. About two dozen people were injured in a seven-hours-long confrontation. The clash began at 5 am when officers moved in to evict 10 people from the home they had been occupying since ousting a government official from the property in September, Rapa Nui lawyer Maka Atan told The Associated Press.
The Rapa Nui resisted and the violence left 17 officers and eight civilians hurt, according to police. Three islanders and one policeman were evacuated to mainland Chile for treatment. But protesters said that 19 islanders were injured and denied seeing any police hurt.
The official native name of Easter Island, known for its stunning gigantic stone heads known as Moais, is Rapa Nui, and that's what many natives call themselves, refusing to identify with Chile, which annexed the island in 1888.
In recent years, tourism and migration have increased pressure to control available land on the 10 mile (16 kilometer) by 15 mile (24 kilometer) island, and the Rapa Nui have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, seizing a dozen properties they said were illegally taken from their families generations ago. A woman who answered the local government official's phone in the island's main town of Hanga Roa said there would be no official comment on Friday's violence.
But Atan, speaking by phone from the island 2,237 miles (3,580 kilometers) west of Chile, said riot police used batons and shotguns against them, firing pellets at close range at their heads. He said he himself was shot in the back with pellets.
Images shared with The AP show several islanders bleeding from head wounds.
About a dozen buildings are currently being occupied by Rapa Nui people, who say Chile illegally took their family's ancestral homes on tiny Easter Island, where a total population of fewer than 5,000 people include about 2,200 Rapa Nuis.
The island's top government authority, Valparaiso Governor Raul Celis, said from mainland Chile that "the evictions will continue."
Chilean media reported that a planeload of police reinforcements was on its way to the island.
Atan said he witnessed police firing pellet guns at people's faces from a distance of just one meter (yard).
"They were shooting to kill. It seems like this is going to end with them killing the Rapa Nui," he said, adding: "The land on this island has always been Rapa Nui. That's why we're asking for our land to be returned."