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Old pain resurfaces for Maori

Police raids anger New Zealand tribes. Terror activities suspected.

RUATOKI, New Zealand - Armed police stormed into this quiet village at dawn, threw up roadblocks, shot out truck tires and forced families out of homes at gunpoint.

The show of force, with its dark subscript of terrorism plans, stunned this placid nation where beat cops don't even carry guns. It has since sparked charges of racism and inflamed historical resentments.

The October raid was part of a nationwide sweep in which 16 people were arrested, and authorities said they shut down military-style camps on Maori ancestral lands where both Maori militants and environmental activists trained.

But a bid to charge 12 of the 16 with terrorist activities has unraveled on technical grounds amid complaints of police heavy-handedness.

While the facts remain unclear, the way police handled the case has strained relations with the 540,000-strong Maori community, which makes up 15 percent of the country's population.

What many found appalling were the tactics used to arrest three of the suspects in Ruatoki and nearby Whakatane, both home to the uncompromising Tuhoe - the only Maori tribe that still rejects the government's sovereignty, 167 years after the British colonized the islands.

For some, the raids stirred memories of repression of Maori a century ago.

"They came in here like in a B-grade film," said Tame Iti, a well-known Tuhoe activist arrested in the Ruatoki raid.

Ruatoki is dotted with small houses, some just sheds, that lie in flat fields by a rural highway on the northern of New Zealand's two main islands.

Iti said police stormed in and held his family, including children, at gunpoint, firing two shots into tires on his truck to immobilize it.

After the arrests, protests broke out in a dozen towns and cities. The police actions against the Tuhoe "set back relations between Maori and the government 100 years," said Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party and a member of parliament.

Authorities said that during 18 months of covert monitoring, they heard armed activists at the camps - in the forested hills of Te Urewera, the Tuhoe ancestral lands - talking of political assassinations and bombings. Those arrested included some white New Zealanders.

Local newspapers published police intercepts of those conversations. In them, the suspects discuss using "sudden" and "brutal" attacks to divide "Aotearoa," the Maori name for New Zealand. The suspects also surmise that foreign terror groups would be blamed, according to the newspaper accounts.

Iti said the camps he was involved in taught bush survival skills and firearms safety. He rejected any connection to terrorism.

The Tuhoe said four weapons were seized in the raids, but Detective Inspector Bruce Good said there were 20, including AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, rifles and pistols, plus silencers, scopes, ammunition and firearms parts.

The government had planned to charge 12 suspects under the Terrorism Suppression Act, enacted after the 9/11 attacks. But Solicitor General David Collins, the top justice official, ruled the antiterror law was too complex to apply in this case.

Those arrested, now free on bail, face lesser charges of illegal possession and use of firearms.

The Maori are descendants of Polynesians who migrated to New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.

Tuhoe, the most isolated and poorest of the Maori tribes, are proud that their ancestors refused to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which created New Zealand under British sovereignty.

The treaty guaranteed the Maori could keep their lands, forests, fisheries and culture - commitments that Maori say were broken as European settlers flooded in.