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Testimony Differs in Massacre Case

August 17, 1999

BELEM, Brazil (AP) _ A bus driver told jurors Tuesday that police Col. Mario Pantoja congratulated his men, saying ``mission accomplished,″ after a 1996 massacre that left 19 landless farm workers dead.

Pedro Alipio da Silva’s testimony contradicts the version of three commanding officers, the first of 150 police charged in a trial that has drawn attention to the violent battle for land in the Amazon.

The massacre took place April 17, 1996, outside the southern Amazon town of Eldorado dos Carajas, 1,300 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, after police tried to clear protesters from a road they were blocking to demand land reform.

Da Silva, who drove a bus that brought police to and from the massacre site, said he heard Pantoja tell his men after the shooting: ``No one saw anything. Mission accomplished. Everyone keep quiet.″

In his testimony Monday, Pantoja denied saying that.

Prosecutors say police opened fire on protesters at the behest of local landowners, who paid Pantoja $85,000 to eliminate 10 leaders of the Landless Rural Workers Movement, with which the protesters were aligned.

Reporters were barred from attending the testimony of Para state Gov. Almir Gabriel, who was called as a witness for the defense Tuesday. A lawyer representing Gabriel avoided answering whether the governor testified that the order to clear the road came from him, as Pantoja claimed.

``The governor already cleared this up, and this is the third deposition in which he explains that there always was a directive that any type of conflict, urban or rural, should be resolved peacefully,″ said Pedro Bentes Pinheiro Filho, who represented the governor during the questioning inside his official residence in Belem, 2,025 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

Outside the courthouse, where other testimony was heard Tuesday, hundreds of members of the Landless Rural Workers Movement waved red flags and shouted that Gabriel should be on trial.

The killings grabbed headlines around the world, putting the issue of land reform on center stage and embarrassing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who tried at first to play down the massacre’s importance. After several days, however, he was forced to go on national television promising to seek justice.

The Landless Rural Workers Movement is famous in Brazil for promoting large-scale invasions of land it considers unproductive in an effort to pressure the government to speed up its agrarian reform program.

Prosecutors conceded in their opening statement Monday that the protesters attacked first, but argued that the police attack was premeditated because officers removed their identity tags from their uniforms and filed the registry numbers off their guns prior to the operation.

Many of those killed were shot at close range, and several were hacked to death with their own scythes and machetes.

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