Bloomberg News

Chile Invokes Pinochet-Era Terror Law as Blazes Turn Deadly

January 09, 2012

(Updates with president’s comments in second paragraph.)

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Chile’s government invoked an anti- terrorist law after wildfires that were allegedly started by arsonists in the country’s south claimed the lives of seven firefighters working for forestry company Empresas CMPC SA.

“We must fight not only the fires but also the criminals who supposedly are behind them,” President Sebastian Pinera said late yesterday. “We have reliable information that leads us to presume that there was criminal intent.”

The firefighters died battling a blaze that broke out simultaneously at more than 50 points, CMPC Chief Executive Officer Hernan Rodriguez said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Dry weather and high winds fanned fires that have consumed more than 56,000 hectares (138,000 acres) in just two weeks, more than the annual average of the past 26 years, according to the national emergency service Onemi.

Pinera has responded with promises to create a national office to coordinate firefighting efforts and proposals to increase fines for starting fires.

Created under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s anti-terror law in the past has allowed the state to use anonymous witnesses and military tribunals in cases where defendants are accused of committing murder for political ends.

“Terrorist behavior definitely is hidden behind the criminal conduct that leads to fires starting simultaneously and deliberately,” Pinera said, according to a statement posted on the presidential website.

Foresters Targeted

Mapuche indigenous groups in Chile’s south have targeted forestry companies such as CMPC and Empresas Copec SA in the past by seizing timber stands and, according to the foresters, setting fires. Natividad Llanquileo, a spokeswoman for Mapuche indigenous activists, didn’t immediately respond to a text message and telephone call seeking comment.

Shares in CMPC, Chile’s second-largest pulp exporter, fell 0.2 percent to 1,919.9 pesos at 12:19 p.m. Santiago time. Copec, which lost a $100 million plywood plant in the fires, dropped 0.3 percent to 6,820 pesos.

In addition to the blaze on CMPC land, wildfires are burning in the southern regions of Bio-Bio, Maule and Magallanes, which is home to the Torres del Paine national park known for its vertical granite peaks.

Authorities partially reopened the park to tourists on Jan. 4 after keeping it closed for less than a week and have charged an Israeli citizen with starting the blaze. The 23-year-old tourist, Rotem Singer, denies the allegations.

--Editors: Philip Sanders, James Attwood

To contact the reporter on this story: Randall Woods in Santiago at rwoods13@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net.


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