CARACAS - A member of Venezuela's Pemon indigenous group was killed during a "confrontation" last Saturday with security forces attempting to dislodge an illegal gold mine in southern Bolivar state, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on Tuesday.
It was the latest in a string of violent incidents in the remote jungles of the once-booming OPEC nation, where people are increasingly taking to informal gold mining as the country's socialist economy unravels and hyperinflation leaves millions struggling to afford basic food items.
Padrino said he regretted the death of 21-year-old Charlie Penaloza in the clash, which took place in Canaima National Park, home to the world's tallest waterfall. He said the armed forces were working to protect indigenous people and the environment from "mafias" that control illegal mining.
"It would be naive to think that only the indigenous are behind illegal gold mining. The indigenous, I repeat, are victims," Padrino said on state television. He did not provide further details of the operation or how Penaloza died.
President Nicolas Maduro in 2016 declared war on wildcat miners as part of a plan to boost gold output in the so-called "Mining Arc" of southern Venezuela to provide an alternative source of revenue as the economy experienced a dramatic drop in oil production.
But opposition politicians and indigenous groups have accused the military of seeking to control the informal gold trade.
"The Venezuelan state is responsible for the physical loss of our companion Charlie Penaloza Rivas, as a result of an uncontrolled armed incursion by the security forces, or with their complicity" the council of Pemon chiefs said in a statement on Saturday.
As a result of the incident, the chiefs suspended municipal elections in the area that were set to take place on Sunday.
In October, seven Venezuelans were killed in a remote gold mine in an apparent clash between armed groups for control of the area. In February, 18 were killed when soldiers clashed with illegal miners in Bolivar.