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Brazil Sends Helicopters to Search for 2 Missing in Amazon

FILE - The Itaquai River runs through the Vale do Javari region in Amazonas state, Brazil, June 16, 2021, on the border with Peru.
FILE - The Itaquai River runs through the Vale do Javari region in Amazonas state, Brazil, June 16, 2021, on the border with Peru.

Brazilian authorities began using helicopters to search a remote area of the Amazon rainforest for a British journalist and Indigenous official missing for more than three days.

Civil police in Amazonas state also said Wednesday they had identified a suspect, who was arrested for allegedly carrying a firearm without a permit, which is common practice in the region. But Gen. Carlos Alberto Mansur, the state's public security secretary, said later that officials did not have any concrete evidence to tie the man to the disappearances.

"We're looking for a possible link, but for now, we have nothing," Mansur said at a news conference. The suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as "Pelado," remained in custody, he said.

Police have questioned five others since the investigation started, but no arrest related to the disappearances has been made, authorities said in their first joint public address.

Journalist Dom Phillips, who has been a regular contributor to newspaper The Guardian, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, an employee of the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency with extensive experience in the region, were last seen early Sunday in the Sao Rafael community, in the Javari Valley Indigenous territory.

The two had been threatened Saturday when a small group of men traveled by river to the Indigenous territory's boundary and brandished firearms at a patrol run by Univaja, which is a local association of Indigenous people. The association's president, Paulo Marubo, previously told the Associated Press that Phillips photographed the men at the time and Pelado was one of them.

Phillips and Pereira were returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.

Indigenous leaders on the ground, family members and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that authorities' search efforts were slow to start and remain insufficient.

In London, Phillips' family and supporters held a vigil outside the Brazilian embassy and urged officials to address why it took so long for the search to begin.

"We had to come this morning, to ask the question: where is Dom Phillips? Where is Bruno Pereira?" Phillips' sister, Sian, told reporters. "We are here to make the point that why did it take so long for them to start the search for my brother and for Bruno. We want the search to carry on."

A Brazilian federal court issued an order Wednesday telling authorities to provide helicopters and more boats, after Univaja and the federal public defender's office filed a request. At an evening news conference, federal police showed multiple images and videos of the area taken earlier that day from a helicopter.

In her decision, Judge Jaiza Maria Pinto noted that she had ordered the Indigenous affairs agency to maintain protections in the region after a 2019 case filed by Univaja reported multiple attacks by criminals. Despite that order, she said, the territory "has been maintained in a situation of low protection and supervision."

The Indigenous affairs agency dismissed one of its three top directors Wednesday. The agency said the decision had been taken in May and was not linked to the case.

Meanwhile, an employee of the Indigenous affairs agency, Gustavo da Cruz, announced in Congress a 24-hour strike for June 13. "If public servant was a secure career, today it is a career of fear, death, violence and threats," da Cruz told lawmakers.

There have been repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area, which has the world's largest concentration of uncontacted Indigenous people. It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border, then smuggled into Brazil to supply local cities or to be shipped to Europe.

Federal police said Wednesday that 250 people from the army, navy, police and firefighters had joined the search.

Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. His wife, Alessandra Sampaio, recorded a video pleading with the government and authorities to intensify search efforts.

"We still have some hope of finding them. Even if I don't find the love of my life alive, they must be found," she said in the video posted on Twitter.

Scientists, artists, journalists and soccer stars — including the legendary Pele — joined her call, posting messages on social media calling for authorities to bolster the search efforts.

Pereira has long operated in Javari Valley for the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency. He oversaw their regional office and the coordination of isolated Indigenous groups before going on leave. For years, he received threats from illegal fishermen and poachers.

On Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro drew criticism when describing the two men's work as an "adventure."

"Really, just two people in a boat in a completely wild region like that is not a recommended adventure. Anything could happen. It could be an accident, it could be that they have been killed," he said in an interview with television network SBT. "We hope and ask God that they're found soon. The armed forces are working hard."