TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders on Wednesday called for an independent investigation into the killing of two environmental activists in Honduras, who had opposed an illegal mine polluting water supplies in a national reserve.
Aly Dominguez, 38, and Jairo Bonilla, 28, environmental activists from the village of Guapinol in Honduras' eastern Colon department, were shot dead on Saturday by unidentified gunmen. Local police attributed the deaths to a robbery.
"It's vital that an independent investigation is carried out into the killing of the two defenders in Guapinol," U.S. special rapporteur Mary Lawlor said in a tweet, adding that the investigation must consider the attack could be a retaliation for their work.
Authorities said Dominguez and Bonilla were on motorcycles working their day jobs collecting service payments for a regional cable television company when they were attacked in a secluded area.
Colon police spokesperson Angel Herrera told local media the crime was motivated by an attempt to rob the money they were carrying.
But Guapinol Resiste, the environmentalist group Dominguez and Bonilla belonged to, rejected this claim on Wednesday.
"It was not a robbery. They were killed for defending the rivers from illegal mining. Justice for Aly and Jairo," it said in a statement, claiming the criminals did not take the money, which was instead later handed over to their employer.
Dominguez and Bonilla had co-founded the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Common and Public Goods for the city of Tocoa, some 8km (5 miles) from Guapinol.
According to the environmentalist group, they had since 2015 put up a strong resistance to the operation of an open-pit iron oxide mine in a forest reserve, a concession they say was illegally granted to a company of influential Honduran businessman Lenir Perez.
Inversiones Los Pinares, the company operating the mine, argues the concession is legal. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many environmentalist and local communities in Central American countries oppose open-pit mining and the building of hydroelectric dams, which can pollute rivers, contaminate water supplies and displace populations.
In March 2016, indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, who was fighting the construction of a hydroelectric dam in western Honduras, was murdered. Six hired assassins and two executives of a firm promoting the dam's construction were later convicted.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)