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Last Updated: Friday, 9 January, 2004, 13:04 GMT
Amazon protesters release priests
Matuxi Tuxau, cacique of the Macuxi people, after occupying the Funai office in Boa Vista
The Macuxi tribe oppose the reserve
Three priests abducted by protesters campaigning against the creation of a huge indigenous reserve in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil have been freed.

The priests - a Brazilian, a Colombian and a Spaniard - had been kidnapped on Tuesday.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the most vigorous campaigners for indigenous rights in the region.

Local farmers and some Indians who are against the plans are continuing their protests with road blocks.

The Macuxi Indians say they fear if the reserve is created, they will be isolated and will not be able to work.

But campaigners say most Indians support the long-awaited creation of a reserve, and that protests are largely driven by those with economic interests in the area.

Farming interests

The released priests were "very tired, had not been subjected to any violence, but had been ridiculed by the Indians" who were holding them, local priest Edson Damian told the AFP news agency.

They were taken from Sumuru, a mission within the bounds of the proposed reserve, by what early reports had described as a band of 200 settlers.

Road blocks in Roraima on Wednesday
Road blockades in protest at the reserve are continuing
The priests' kidnappers also ransacked the mission's school and hospital.

The settlers are mainly small farmers and rice growers who have moved into the region over recent years amid continued wrangling over the final residential ratification of the reserve, initially promised in 1998.

The reserve, called the Raposa Serra do Sol, would cover 16,000 square kilometres (6,180 sq miles) - approximately half the size of Belgium - in the state of Roraima.

The settlers will be forced to leave the area if the reserve is ratified - which Justice Minister Marcio Thomas Bastos recently said would finally take place in coming weeks.

Macuxis, some symbolically wearing war paint and holding bows and arrows, have been joining the settlers' protests.

"We are no longer in the stone age and we believe in integration," said Jonas Marculino, indigenous farmer, teacher and Macuxi representative.

Macuxi Indians are also continuing to occupy the offices of the National Indian Foundation (Funai) in the Roraima state capital, Boa Vista.

'Massive betrayal'

"It is a tiny minority of Indians who oppose the reserve," said Fiona Watson, a campaigns coordinator at Survival International, which lobbies for the rights of indigenous peoples.

"This is the culmination of a 30-year fight for land rights for Indians... It is clear that constitutionally this is indigenous territory - it's theirs. To go back now would be a massive betrayal."

The reserve would be home to Taurpeng, Inarico, Wapixana, and Patamona Indians, as well as the Macuxi.

Flamarion Portela, the governor of the state of Roraima, was due to meet Mr Bastos on Friday to try to resolve the situation.

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