ASUNCION — Paraguay replaced two top security officials Saturday after at least 16 people were killed in bloody clashes between police and peasant farmer squatters.
Former attorney general Ruben Candia was sworn in as the new interior minister, and Arnaldo Sanabria became the country's police chief in a ceremony at the government palace headed by President Fernando Lugo.
The president accepted the resignation of their respective predecessors Carlos Filizzola and Paulino Rojas late Friday after armed clashes earlier in the day at a privately owned forest reserve in Curuguaty, 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of the capital Asuncion.
The pair were accused of responsibility for the confrontation. The move to replace Filizzola and Rojas sought to appease the wrath of his opponents -- including the majority opposition in Congress, which has called for Lugo's impeachment.
Lugo also ordered the army to the area to support police in helping restore calm.
The violence erupted when more than 300 police officers arrived at the reserve to evict 150 peasant farmers on land owned by Blas Riquelme, a wealthy supermarket businessman, former senator and Lugo opponent.
The peasants, however, were armed and opened fire. In the end, seven police officers and at least nine farmers were killed, officials said.
Herminio Davalos, a member of Congress who represents the region, said that the peasants opened fire when eight officers went forward to try to talk to the protesters.
"There were sharpshooters in the trees," said Davalos. "That's where the seven policemen fell. One saved himself."
The protesters were armed with weapons stolen months earlier from riot police, according to opposition lawmaker Jose Lopez.
"Shots were fired and the police had to respond," Filizzola said in justifying the use of force. "We acted in accordance with the law."
Local police official Walter Gomez said the peasants "shot cleanly" and described the situation as critical.
"The peasants have high-caliber weapons like M16 rifles," Gomez told television network 13.
At one point police surrounded the peasants with the help of helicopters.
The clashes took place in a region close to Paraguay's borders with Brazil and Argentina that is considered to have some of the country's most fertile soil.
The regional governor, Cristina Villalba, called Filizzola irresponsible and said she had warned that the eviction would result in the loss of lives.
In a brief statement earlier in the day, Lugo had expressed his "absolute support" for the police and offered his condolences to the families of the victims.
Territorial disputes are not unusual in Paraguay, where two percent of the population holds 80 percent of the land.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »