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Chile hails trapped miners' spirit

The survival of 33 miners trapped half a mile underground and the government's unblinking effort to pull them out alive has given Chileans reason to be proud as they celebrated their nation's bicentennial on Saturday.

"These 33 miner-heroes, with their iron will, their spirit, their fight, their strength, are an example to all of us of what it means to be Chilean," Interior Ministry official Cristian Barra said as a flag signed by the miners was raised next to the tent camp where families have held vigil.

Another Chilean flag was signed by the families and sent down for the miners to unfurl.

The miners feasted on traditional Chilean meat pies - two each, baked in tubular form to fit through the narrow bore holes to their deep refuge. But they had to make do with non-alcoholic fizzy drinks because doctors vetoed their request for another national speciality - wine. Rescuers also sent down fuel to power machinery the miners will use to move tons of falling rock as their escape tunnels are widened.

In the afternoon, the government distributed copies of a video from inside the mine showing the miners, many of them dressed in red, singing the national anthem. One broke into an impromptu performance of the "cueca", a traditional Chilean dance, pretending the flag was his partner as his companions clapped out a rhythm and flashed "V for victory" signs.

Chile's can-do ethos, evident in President Sebastian Pinera's spare-no-expense approach to saving the miners, has brought the country to the threshold of the world's club of developed nations, with the kind of stable economic growth that Americans and Europeans once took for granted.

But the mine disaster also is forcing Chileans to acknowledge aspects of their society long hidden from view. The miners' faces - displayed across the pages of Chile's leading newspapers - reflect lifetimes of scratching out livings in difficult conditions. And Chilean pride about the rescue effort is balanced by frustration that the government hasn't done more to provide for all of its people.

Indeed, the miners, now trapped for 46 days, aren't the only marginalised group whose survival has become a national concern during this bicentennial - 34 imprisoned Mapuche Indians are two months into a hunger strike, their latest tactic in a long and sometimes violent campaign to press for land and government resources.

"Chile is successful partly because we have inherited the Mapuche culture" of the nation's original inhabitants, said Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarometro regional survey firm based in Santiago. "It's an austere culture - hard, dry, tenacious, persistent, and all of this has to do with success," she said.

The miners survived alone for 17 days after 700,000 tons of rock collapsed in the central section of the San Jose gold and copper mine on August 5. They kept their wits, washing tiny bits of canned tuna and peaches down with sips of milk every other day to stretch a 48-hour emergency food supply. Above ground, their rescuers never gave up, despite bad maps of the mine that initially frustrated their attempts to reach them by carving narrow bore holes.

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