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French NGO head killed in Guatemala 'ambush'

The French director of an NGO who was killed in Guatemala was ambushed, the NGO's general manager told AFP on Tuesday.

Police officers and members of the Public Ministry (MP) look for evidence at the site where French human rights defender Benoit Maria was killed in San Antonio Ilotenango, Guatemala, on August 10, 2020. - The French director of an NGO in Guatemala was killed Monday in an armed attack in the northeast of the country, a human rights organization said. Benoit Maria was the director of the agriculture and animal health NGO Agronomes et Veterinaires Sans Frontieres (AVSF) in Guatemala. Nuestro Diario / AFP
Benoit Maria, the Guatemala director of the agriculture and animal health NGO Agronomes et Veterinaires Sans Frontieres (AVSF), was shot in an indigenous area in the northeast of the country on Monday.

"He was caught in an ambush and was shot in his car. The Guatemalan police are investigating and will do what's needed," said Frederic Apollin.

Guatemala's Vice President Guillermo Castillo urged judicial authorities to get to the bottom of the murder.

"It's imperative that the corresponding institutions clear up this violent act that was committed against a human rights defender," Castillo said in a statement, also expressing his condolences to Maria's family and colleagues.

According to local media, Maria, who was 52, was driving a van on a road near the indigenous village of San Antonio Ilotenango, 85 kilometers (53 miles) northwest of the capital Guatemala City, when he was shot dead.

In a tweet, French President Emmanuel Macron praised Maria's "humanist, fraternal, supportive commitment that honored France," describing the murder as "cowardly."

The motive for the attack is not known.

"Working on the ground in Guatemala can be complicated, but we cannot talk about a threat," said Apollin.

"As far as we know, no one was putting pressure on our association or Benoit, who seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The murder was revealed on Monday by the Guatemalan Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA).

The French Embassy in Guatemala expressed its "dismay" in a statement, adding that it is in contact with Guatemalan authorities to "ensure that this crime is solved and that justice can be done quickly."

"Well-known in the French embassy, Mr Maria worked to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged people in the west of the country," said the statement, which was published on the embassy's Facebook page.

He had lived in Guatemala for more than 20 years, supporting agricultural projects for the indigenous Mayan Ixil communities, according to UDEFEGUA coordinator Jorge Santos.

Maria also participated in the 2011 creation of Ixil University, in the department of Quiche, dedicated to the ancestral knowledge of indigenous people.

His murder took place the day after eight people, including six French humanitarian workers from an NGO called Acted, were killed in an attack in Niger.

Topics: Guatemala , Benoit Maria , NGO Agronomes et Veterinaires Sans Frontieres , Emmanuel Macron
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