Armed police stormed into this quiet village at dawn, threw up roadblocks, shot out truck tires and forced families out of their homes at gunpoint.
The rare show of force, with its dark subscript of terrorism and assassination 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 unraveled on technical grounds, triggering complaints of police brutality. 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 most appalling was the tactics used to arrest three of the suspects in Ruatoki and the nearby town of Whakatane, both are 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 more than 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. "It was an attack on the community. It was an attack on me as a freedom fighter, and as a sovereign person of this country."
Ruatoki -- small houses, some just sheds -- 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 and abroad in the US, England and Australia, itself home to 250,000 Maori.
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 had heard armed activists at the camps -- in the forested hills of Te Urewera, the Tuhoe ancestral lands -- talking of political assassinations and bombing power plants. The arrested included some white New Zealanders.
In a controversial move, 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 get the blame, according to the newspaper accounts.
Iti said the camps he was involved in taught bush survival skills and firearms safety, something he has been doing for Tuhoe and other youth for 30 years. He rejected any connection to terrorism.
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