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December 18, 2018

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American killed by isolated tribe on Indian island

North Sentinel Island

Gautam Singh / AP

In this Nov. 14, 2005, file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India’s southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

NEW DELHI — An American adventurer was killed by an isolated Indian island tribe known to shoot at outsiders with bows and arrows, police said Wednesday.

Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said seven fishermen have been arrested for helping the American visit North Sentinel Island, where the killing occurred. Visits to the island are heavily restricted by the government.

The Sentinelese people on the small forested island are known to resist contacts with outsiders, often attacking anyone who comes near.

Pathak identified the American as John Allen Chau and said he earlier described himself at a hotel as 26 years old and from Alabama. He was apparently killed by arrows, but the cause of death can't be confirmed until his body is recovered, Pathak said told The Associated Press.

Police have approached anthropologists with contacts on the island in an effort to visit and recover the body, Pathak said.

He said Chau arrived in the region on Oct. 16 and stayed in a hotel while he prepared to visit the prohibited island. He had earlier visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2015 and 2016, Pathak said. North Sentinel is in the Andaman Islands at the intersection of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

He said Chau organized his visit to the island through a friend who hired seven fishermen for $325 to take him there on a boat, which also towed his kayak.

Chau went ashore in his kayak on Nov. 15 and sent the boat with the fishermen out to sea to avoid detection, Pathak said. He interacted with some of the tribespeople, giving them gifts he had prepared such as a football and fish. But the tribespeople became angry and shot an arrow at him which apparently hit a book he was carrying, Pathak said.

The American's kayak became damaged, so he swam to the fishermen's boat, which was waiting at a prearranged location. There he spent the night and wrote out his experiences on pages of paper which he gave to the fishermen, Pathak said. He set out again to meet the tribespeople on Nov. 16.

But on the morning of the following day, the waiting fishermen saw from a distance his body being dragged by tribesmen. They left for Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they informed Chau's friend, who notified his family, Pathak said.

He said the family got in touch with Indian police and U.S. consular officials.

"It was a case of misdirected adventure," he said.

Police arrested the seven fishermen and charged them with endangering the life of the American by taking him to a prohibited area, Pathak said.

Kathleen Hosie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, the capital of India's southern Tamil Nadu state, said it was aware of reports concerning an American in the islands.

"When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts," Hosie said. She said she could not comment further due to privacy considerations.

Survival International, an organization that works for the rights of tribal people, said the killing of the American should prompt Indian authorities to properly protect the lands of the Sentinelese and other Andaman tribes.

"The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survives. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable," Stephen Corry, the group's director, said in a statement.

Shiv Viswanathan, a social scientist and a professor at Jindal Global Law School, said North Sentinel Island was a protected area and not open to tourists. "The exact population of the tribe is not known, but it is declining. The government has to protect them," Viswanathan said.

Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers. Tribespeople killed two Indian fishermen in 2006 when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore.