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30/07/04 : Three drug-linked rebel leaders flew out of their rural safe haven for an unprecedented address yesterday to Colombia's congress, trying to convince a skeptical country of their commitment to peace, despite persistent killings. Opposition legislators and critics condemned the government-backed trip, saying it bestowed political legitimacy on some of the worst killers and drug traffickers in the Western Hemisphere. 

"In Colombia today, nothing is more urgent and pressing than opening paths of peace and reconciliation," Salvatore Mancuso, the supreme commander of the 13,000-strong United Self-Defence Forces, said in his speech. The group formally opened disarmament talks with the government this month. 

Mancuso and commanders Ramon Isaza and Ivan Roberto Duque all shed their camouflage fatigues for dark suits and ties before boarding an air force plane to fly from their northwestern stronghold to Bogota. They were greeted by a massive police escort. 

President Alvaro Uribe granted the men a two-day safe conduct pass, giving them immunity from arrest for their alleged roles in human rights abuses committed during their two-decade dirty war against Marxist rebels. 

Mancuso defended the USDF, calling his fighters "heroes" who for years protected the Colombian people from guerrilla attacks in the absence of state authority. 

He offered no apology for the thousands of victims of paramilitary violence but said USDF commanders were discussing compensation. 

Washington has issued an extradition order against Mancuso on cocaine smuggling charges, while Isaza and Duque both appear on a U.S. Treasury Department list of "significant" drug traffickers. 

Some 1,500 police and army troops, backed by bomb-sniffer dogs, took up positions in a wide area around the congressional building in downtown Bogota amid fears that rebels might try to launch an attack. 

Dozens of people protested the warlords' visit outside the congress, many wearing white skeleton masks to symbolize those killed by the paramilitary and chanting "never forget." 

The peace process "is a capitulation to impunity and injustice in Colombia," said Ivan Cepeda, whose father, former senator Manuel Cepeda, was slain in 1994. 

"What the process needs is for both sides to tell the truth, something they have not done," said independent Senator Carlos Moreno, accusing the paramilitaries of taking part in the talks only to avoid jail terms and extradition. 

Vice-President Francisco Santos, however, said the peace talks were necessary to remove a conflict that claims thousands of lives every year. 

"What we hope is that when this government's term ends (in 2006), they will have demobilized," Santos said. 

The congress is set to play a crucial role in the talks, however, as Uribe needs legislators to approve a bill that would give him the negotiating flexibility to offer USDF leaders an amnesty or reduced prison sentences in return for laying down their guns. 

Mancuso was also expected to use the trip to get a medical checkup, something he has been unable to do for several years while living as a fugitive.

29/07/04 : Marxist guerrillas freed a Roman Catholic bishop unharmed yesterday after an army operation cut them off from rebel commanders who had wanted to give him a message for the government, the bishop said.

Misael Vacca Ramirez, the bishop of Yopal, was released close to where he was taken hostage on Saturday in remote northeastern mountains.

"I was treated well. At no moment did anybody show me disrespect," Vacca Ramirez, 48, told reporters after stepping off a helicopter that had flown him out of the mountains about 120 miles northeast of Bogota.

He tearfully hugged relatives on the tarmac in Yopal and thanked the Colombian people for support during his kidnapping.

Vacca Ramirez said members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said they kidnapped him to give him a political message for authorities.

But the government army forced the kidnappers deep into the jungle, and they were cut off from a rebel commander who was to give him the statement, Vacca Ramirez said.

"So it turned into nothing more than a big scare for me," the bishop said.

Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro said the ELN rebels likely acted without orders from their command, taking top ELN leaders by surprise.

President Alvaro Uribe welcomed Vacca Ramirez's release, but called for hundreds of other hostages held by guerrillas for ransom or political reasons to be released.

Some 1,000 troops had embarked on a search-and-rescue operation in the jungle-covered mountains.

Vacca Ramirez has been involved in peace efforts between the government, leftist rebels, and right-wing paramilitary groups battling for control of the oil-rich Casanare and Boyaca regions

27/07/04 : A Colombian Roman Catholic bishop has been kidnapped by suspected rebels. 

Misael Vaca Ramirez, Bishop of Yopal, was seized north-east of Bogota by the National Liberation Army guerrilla group (ELN), church leaders said. 

A church official said the ELN had promised to release the bishop unharmed at an unspecified time, with a message for the authorities. 

Last month the government offered to stop operations against the ELN if the groups called a ceasefire. 

A church leader said he hoped the bishop would only be kept for a short time. 

ELN leaders have been trying to find common ground recently for peace talks with the government. 

The Marxist rebel group is thought to have up to 5,000 members. 

It is small in comparison with Colombia's most powerful rebels - the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

22/07/04 : Veteran Colombian rebel Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, reported to be dying of prostate cancer, is in good health according to a top FARC rebel who also denied the group was in tactical retreat from the government's sustained military offensive.

Local media reports earlier this year that the 74-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was dying of cancer are false, said Raul Reyes, one of the seven-member governing secretariat of the 17,000-strong Marxist rebel army at war for 40 years.

"Commander Marulanda enjoys good health and continues to lead the FARC politically and militarily," Reyes said in a recent interview with Reuters at a hidden jungle camp, equipped with Internet and satellite television.

Reyes offered no proof but former peasant and career guerrilla Marulanda has been prematurely declared dead by reporters, soldiers or guerrilla deserters many times over the years.

The short, bearded Reyes, apparently in good health himself despite rumors he too was terminally ill with prostate cancer, said right-wing President Alvaro Uribe's military offensive against the FARC was doomed to fail.

"He hasn't understood the FARC is a political organization, with strength and experience, social and political reasons for its struggle, and for those reasons cannot be defeated," Reyes said.


Uribe, a firm U.S. ally, has boosted military spending and ordered the army to be more active against the FARC, leading to a big fall in violent deaths and kidnapping and helping lift his opinion poll approval rating to near 70 percent.

He has mobilized 15,000 troops to hunt FARC leaders in the jungles of southern Colombia. But while military activity and improved air power has stopped big guerrilla operations such as the attacks on villages of the late 1990s, the army has not won decisive victories.

Highway patrols have squeezed rebel finances by making mass kidnapping more difficult and government spraying campaigns have attacked cocaine crops they "tax."

But despite the year-old military offensive -- the biggest in years -- Reyes denied the FARC was in retreat and said it gained new recruits daily

"There is no tactical retreat. The FARC continues to fight where it wants."

He called Uribe "a failed president, who unfortunately persists with his obsession with war."

"The FARC is sure of the triumph it set out to obtain 40 years ago, the conquest of political power," Reyes said, dismissing polls that show the rebels have almost no popular backing.

"The FARC has enough support to move throughout the whole country."

Polls are mainly taken in cities, while FARC supporters are concentrated in the neglected countryside. About 60 percent of Colombians live in poverty.


Reyes called the government's peace talks with far-right paramilitaries -- which the FARC say cooperate with the military -- a "pantomime, a deceit."

Uribe, whose father was killed resisting kidnap by the FARC in the 1980s, was a fierce critic of peace talks with the rebels under the previous government.

Prospects of fresh talks seem remote. Uribe insists he will talk to any illegal armed group that calls a cease-fire. The FARC demands he withdraw the army from two southern provinces as a condition for negotiations, which it says must address social reform and not just war.

The FARC is concentrating on obtaining what it calls a "humanitarian exchange," to swap about 70 hostages for rebels in government jails.

But they refuse Uribe's demand that any prisoners released not rejoin guerrilla ranks. The hostages include three Americans -- Defense Department contractors captured in February 2003 -- and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen.

"From what other commanders tell me, the prisoners in their power are in good health," Reyes said, warning against a rescue attempt. "They could get caught in the cross fire."

FARC rebels killed 10 hostages, including a former defense minister, to prevent their rescue by in a botched army operation last year.

21/07/04 : Colombia's main guerrilla group rejected peace talks Monday as long as the government is led by hard-line President Alvaro Uribe.

"We're ready to undertake, with a new administration, the titanic task of building peace with social justice," commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement posted on their Website.

Uribe, who took office two years ago, has said he is willing to open peace talks with FARC provided the group first declares a unilateral ceasefire.

But FARC has threatened to continue its 40-year armed struggle to topple the government, prompting Uribe to order a major offensive.

On Monday, FARC branded the operation a failure.

"For a long time, President Uribe has tried to sell the illusion of the military defeating the guerrillas," the communique said.

Top military leaders, however, said FARC, with an estimated 16,000 fighters, will be forced to the negotiating table two years from now as a result of mounting losses on the battlefield.

Uribe's term as president ends in August 2006. Under Colombia's constitution, presidents are not allowed to seek re-election. But Uribe is trying to push through congress a bill that would allow him to seek a second term.

20/07/04 : WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, has denounced the country of Colombia for its military's practice to excuse many of their men from serving in the military while U.S. soldiers have been sent to the country to take up the slack.

Stupak, during debate on the 2005 Foreign Operations spending bill, said this policy of excusing the sons and daughters of their elite has been in place since the beginning of Colombia's 40-year civil war. Colombian law excludes military draftees who are high school graduates from serving in combat units.

"If the elite, educated Colombians won't send their sons and daughters to fight in their own civil war, why should American troops be sent to Colombia in their place?" said Stupak. "Every year the Colombians tell us that this issue is being addressed, but over and over again the fact remains -- it has not been."

"Meanwhile," Stupak said, "the administration wants to increase U.S. troops to Colombia from 400 to 800.

"Instead, Colombia needs to change its laws to do away with existing discriminatory practices and create a universal military service obligation without distinction for economic, social or academic conditions," Stupak said. "This is yet another reason why the U.S. should not be sending additional troops to Colombia.

"Our military is already stretched thin with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush has implemented a stop-loss order to prevent active military and reservists from retiring and now they want to increase the number of troops we are sending to Colombia. It is just wrong," Stupak said.

Stupak and many other members of Congress have expressed concern with respect to a number of Colombia-related issues including the U.S. military's role, human rights, the aerial eradication of illicit drug crops, drug interdiction programs, the situation of U.S. hostages, and funding levels for Colombia, which have totaled more than $3.7 billion since 2000.

19/07/04 : Colombia's left-wing Farc rebels have freed the two sons of a former politician whom they kidnapped in a raid on an apartment building in 2001.

Jaime Losada confirmed his sons had been freed but said his wife, a senator, is still in rebel custody.

Rebels in police clothing had abducted them from their family home in the south-western city of Neiva.

Ransoms from abductions are - alongside the cocaine trade - a major source of income for the Colombian rebels.

The Farc is Colombia's largest rebel group and has been fighting for a socialist state for about four decades.

Shocking raid

Mr Losada, a former provincial governor and senator, told a local radio station: "I am half happy.

"I haven't seen my sons yet, but they're on their way, and I have to keep fighting to free my wife Gloria and thousands of other people who have been kidnapped in Colombia."

The rebels separated his sons from their mother six months after the abduction, the Associated Press reported.

The brothers, Sebastian Losada, 18, and Jaime Felipe, 20, are thought to have been freed in an undisclosed location in southern Colombia.

The Farc raid on the high-security apartment complex in Neiva shocked many urban Colombians as it brought to their doorstep a conflict largely associated with the impoverished peasantry.

12/07/04 : According to the UN, there are up to three million internally displaced people in Colombia, making it the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concedes that the rate of displacement has fallen. 

This is partly because the army has been moving in to former rebel strongholds, but also because some of Colombia's armed factions now have an active policy of preventing would-be refugees from leaving their homes. 

Left-wing guerrillas have been fighting the state for 40 years 
But the commissioner warns that every day up to 500 people join the growing ranks of Colombia's internally displaced. The situation is so grave, the UN says, that only Sudan and Congo are blighted by worse humanitarian crises. 

Human rights groups reckon that even if the army were to completely vanquish the Farc, and end the violence that has plagued Colombia for some 40 years, it would take at least 15 years for the problem of internal displacement to subside. 

08/07/04 : Millions of people in the United States were moved by the story of Private Jessica Lynch, captured by Iraqi troops in March 2003. A few days after her liberation, Jessica Lynch would return to her home in West Virginia as a heroine and an icon of the U.S. battle for the liberation of the Iraqi people.

But in the United States, few people have heard of Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves or Keith Stansell (photo). These three U.S. citizens were captured some 16 months ago and have been held prisoner in the Colombian jungles by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels since then.

The relative anonymity of these three prisoners is no surprise. They were not active members of the U.S. military, but contractors working for two subsidiaries of Northrop Grumman, a private business that provides services to the U.S. State Department in the war against drugs in Colombia and in Afghanistan. Their small aircraft was brought down February 13, 2003 while flying over the province of Caquetá in southern Colombia.

"Contrast the impressive coverage that the media has given to the case of Jessica Lynch with the coverage of these three men in Colombia, who have spent months in captivity," says Peter Singer, analyst for the Brookings Institute think-tank and author of the book, Corporate Warriors. "This illustrates one of the clearest reasons why governments like to use private contractors, because when things go wrong, there are no headlines," explains Singer.... read the article :

05/07/04 : In December 2000, U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions, U.S.-supplied Blackhawk helicopters and U.S.-piloted spray planes descended on Putumayo department to conduct Plan Colombia’s initial aerial fumigation campaign. 

In the more than three years since the initial spraying of coca crops, Putumayo has been a repeat target, as have many of the country’s other southern departments. Although the U.S. government claims its fumigation prescriptions finally began decreasing coca cultivation in 2002 and 2003, there is still no evidence that Plan Colombia has achieved its principal goal of dramatically reducing the flow of cocaine to the United States. 

But while Plan Colombia has failed to affect the price, purity and availability of cocaine in U.S. cities, its militarization of Putumayo has contributed significantly to increased oil exploration by multinational companies in this resource-rich region. Neoliberal economic reforms that constitute the economic component of Plan Colombia have further sweetened the pot for foreign oil companies.

03/07/04Disarmament talks between the Colombian government and right-wing warlords got off to a contentious start when paramilitary leaders insisted they shouldn't face jail time for their crimes.

``The peace process ends when we have all rejoined civil society under normal conditions,'' Salvatore Mancuso, the supreme commander of the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, told a ceremony Thursday to formally open the talks in this traditional paramilitary stronghold.

The three-hour event was held under an open-air tent that provided little relief from the sweltering heat that grips Santa Fe de Ralito, the dusty cattle-ranching town playing host to the six-month process aimed at demobilizing some 12,000 fighters.

Peasants attracted by free food and cold sodas, however, largely filled the empty seats left by foreign diplomats and representatives of international organizations, who stayed away amid concern over the AUC's persistent involvement in drug trafficking and frequent violations of its unilaterally declared cease-fire.

In his speech, Mancuso also reiterated that his aim was to transform the paramilitary movement from an outlawed, anti-insurgency force blamed for some of Colombia's worst atrocities into a legitimate political organization.

Wearing a white open-neck shirt instead of his usual combat fatigues, Mancuso sat alongside nine other warlords who make up the AUC's high command, Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt and other government officials.

For Mancuso and the others, this was the first day in years that they were able to move in public without fear of arrest, after the government granted them immunity for the duration of the talks, provided they remain within the 240-square-mile safe haven around Santa Fe De Ralito.

But the path toward demobilization is fraught with obstacles, including deepening drug trafficking, persistent killings and kidnappings and little international involvement.

The most recent hurdle was cleared late Wednesday when former Sen. Jose Eduardo Gnecco was freed by paramilitary gunmen. President Alvaro Uribe had stripped two militia leaders of their immunity but restored it after the release.

Some 3,500 people are killed each year in the war, which pits leftist rebels against the paramilitary factions and government forces. The paramilitaries were started by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to combat Marxist rebels.

The disarmament process came about largely due to Uribe's decision to boost military spending and wage all-out war on Colombia's two leftist rebel groups.

``The AUC agreed to a cease-fire, which was a condition for the start of the talks and that's why the government is here,'' Pretelt told reporter at the ceremony. ``I have a lot of faith in this process ... and I believe the paramilitaries are willing to make peace.''

The United States, however, has labeled the AUC a terrorist organization and most of the group's leaders, including Mancuso, are sought by the U.S. Justice Department on drug-related charges.

The key sticking point will likely be the fate of Mancuso and the other paramilitary leaders. Human rights groups say they must not be let off the hook.

``The Colombian government is sitting at the table with some of the worst war criminals in the Western Hemisphere,'' said Roxanna Altholz of the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law. ``These people cannot be amnestied from human rights violations.''

24/06/04Colombia has scant hope of ending its four-decade-old war as long as key players in the conflict remain committed to military spending rather than peaceful solutions, a prominent Colombian rights activist said.

Jorge Rojas Rodriguez, founder of a group devoted to promoting human rights and helping people displaced by the fighting, made his remarks on May 17 as he accepted a humanitarian award from the biggest alliance of U.S.-based aid groups for his work advocating peaceful and democratic alternatives to the conflict.

“We have a guerrilla movement that has been frozen in time in the 1960s, a national security doctrine that has not emerged from the 1970s and a United States military aid model that harks back to the 1980s,” he told members of InterAction, which represents 160 groups doing international relief work.

“It would appear that all of these key actors are looking backward and that in looking backward they are closing off the possibility of the future.”

The United Nations has called Colombia’s conflict between the government and far-right paramilitaries the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western hemisphere, with more than two million driven from their homes by the fighting.

Human rights activists are frequently harassed and killed in Colombia.

Jorge Rojas said the government was spending $7.3 million a day on the war but almost nothing to help an average of 730 people forced off their land each day.

Meanwhile, he said the Bush administration was providing $1.7 million a day to help the Colombian government continue the war, while paramilitary groups were spending $2.6 million daily.

“I’m sad to tell you that all of the armed actors in Colombia are looking toward more war and are not looking seriously for peace,” he said.

InterAction said its annual humanitarian award was intended to honour Jorge Rojas’ long dedication to the defence of human rights in Colombia, both as a journalist and founder in 1992 of Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy, known by the Spanish acronym of CODHES.

InterAction also honoured New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall for her humanitarian reporting from Afghanistan and ZUMA Press photographer Jeffrey Austin for his work capturing effective humanitarian assistance.

19/06/04Growing tensions between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela, as well as the persistence of fighting between left-wing insurgents and Army-backed paramilitary groups within Colombia, are threatening the welfare of a hundreds of members of the Wayuu indigenous group, descendants of the Arawaks who dominated the southern Caribbean before the European conquest of the Americas.

A massacre allegedly committed by right-wing paramilitaries in the Caribbean border town of Bahia Portete two months ago reportedly killed at least 12 Indians, although 30 more, including 20 children, remain unaccounted for, according to Massachusetts-based Cultural Survival.

It also sent hundreds of residents fleeing across the border into Venezuela where UN agencies and the government of President Hugo Sanchez are supplying them with food, shelter, and medicine

15/06/04Chiquita said it would sell holdings in Colombia, citing a US investigation into money the banana grower paid to a paramilitary army on a US list of terrorists.

"There are many reasons for the decision to sell the operations. The Department of Justice's investigation is a factor (but) it's not the only factor," spokesman Michael Mitchell told AFP from Chiquita Brands International's headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Chiquita said in April 2003 it had paid the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia army for what it called "protection" for its employees, according to a statement it released May 10. Chiquita did not reveal the amount its Colombian affiliate Banadex paid to the paramilitaries.

The US State Department lists the paramilitary group as a foreign terrorist organization, along with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, two leftist guerrilla bands that also extort money for protection.

Colombia's paramilitaries began in the banana region, near Colombia's border with Panama. The group grew into an army of 10,000 armed irregulars and has been negotiating its demobilization with the Colombian government.

Chiquita is a member of the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative.  The ETI is a unique alliance of companies, nongovernmental organizations and labor unions working together to advance good practice in business ethics, corporate responsibility and human rights

13/06/04Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) is said to have a new leader.

Senator Jaime Dussan, of the left-wing Democratic Poll, said Farc commanders contacted the party and informed them that the new leader was Alfonso Cano.

Cano's real name is Guillermo Leon Saenz and he has been the ideological head of the guerrilla army.

Long-time leader Manuel Marulanda has died or is about to die of prostate cancer, say intelligence sources.

The news marks the end of an era for the Farc, one of the world's richest and most powerful guerrilla armies.

Manuel Marulanda built the rebel force up from 48 fighters to the 16,000-strong army of today and, in doing so, became a legend in Colombia.

His successor, Alfonso Cano, has been the movement's ideological head for over a decade.

Analysts believe that the announcement reveals a shift away from the military emphasis of the Farc to more political activity.

Many think this could raise the chances of a political dialogue with the government.

The Farc have been fighting for 40 years to overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime.

Cano is known as a committed communist and the movement's ideology is unlikely to change.

What may change is that the group may move away from indiscriminate bombings and killings that have earned the Farc the label 'terrorist organisation' both in the United States and Europe : 

07/06/04MEXICO: The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, has asked the Colombian president, Mr Alvaro Uribe, to seek the return of the "Colombia Three" to Ireland pending the outcome of an appeal in their case.

Mr Ahern was meeting last night with Mr Uribe on the margins of the EU-Latin America summit in Guadalajara, Mexico. He suggested to Mr Uribe that the men should be allowed return to Ireland instead of being released on bail in Bogota.

Earlier this month, a Bogota judge denied a petition to allow the so-called "Colombia Three" to return to Ireland.

While they could be released on €17,000 bail, their defence team says their lives would be in danger in Bogota.

Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were convicted on a charge of travelling on false documents in April but found not guilty on charges of training terrorists in bomb-making techniques. They received sentences of between two and four years.

The Taoiseach's spokesman said: "He is going to point out that it is the Irish Government's belief that the best way to ensure the safety of the three Irishmen would be to allow them to return to Ireland pending the hearing of the appeal.

He will also point out that we know it is a matter for the Colombian courts. However, anything that can be done at a political level there that would advance this outcome would be helpful."

The appeal process could take up to eight months. A second appeal, lodged initially by the office of the Inspector General, has since been dropped.

The Government is expected to pay any bail in the instance : 

11/04/04The drug-fuelled war in Colombia has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western hemisphere, with more than two million people forced to flee their homes and several Indian tribes threatened with extinction, the UN has said.

Under-secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland warned that the humanitarian situation is getting worse.

He told a news conference that it is time for the Colombian government at all levels, Colombia’s wealthiest citizens, and the international community to do much more to address what he said “has largely become a forgotten humanitarian crisis”.

As a result of the 39-year-old civil war, Colombia now has the third-largest number of displaced people in the world – behind Congo and Sudan, Mr Egeland said.

In the last four years, the number has jumped from around one million to more than two million, and while the number of displaced Colombians is down from the peak in 2002, it is still growing, he said.

“Colombia is therefore by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western hemisphere,” he said. “It has the biggest number of killings in the Western hemisphere. It’s the biggest humanitarian problem, human rights problem, the biggest conflict in the Western hemisphere.”

Mr Egeland served previously as a UN special adviser in Colombia and just spent four days visiting displaced people living in shantytowns outside Cartagena on the Atlantic coast and near Bogota. He also met President Alvaro Uribe and representatives of 25 concerned countries and 60 non-governmental organisations working in Colombia.

In the last year, he said, security has improved for many Colombians and the number of kidnappings and assassinations has gone down.

“However, the humanitarian situation is worsening still,” he said.

He said the crisis is deteriorating because poor Colombians, primarily in rural areas, are being attacked by armed groups and are forced to flee their homes.

“Colombia has had an increasingly dirty war where paramilitary forces and the guerrillas systematically attack the civilian population, the peasants they believe support the other side.

“This leads to people going from the countryside to towns and cities where they stay in shantytowns” without access to education, health care or adequate shelter.

In the shantytown outside Cartagena, he said, “I just felt it was 10,000 people floating around in a sea of sewage and garbage, with some improvised housing where they had gotten or stolen some building materials.”

He said the displaced communities he visited in Colombia “are very, very similar to those you find in the Congo, in northern Uganda, in Sudan and elsewhere”.

The humanitarian crisis and the war feed into a vicious cycle, Mr Egeland said.

The millions of displaced – many of them young people “with no hope, no education, no feeling of having a future” – become new recruits for the guerrillas, the paramilitary forces and the drug mafias, he said.

Mr Egeland said there are large areas of the country where there is a risk of increasing conflict because of stepped-up government fighting against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, and increasingly strong paramilitary groups – which will likely mean more displacements.

The UN is especially concerned about 10 ”besieged and blocked areas of the country” where several hundred thousand Indian tribes and peasant communities are totally trapped without international assistance because paramilitaries or government fighting has blocked access to them, he said.

“There are several Indian tribes in Colombia which are in acute danger of becoming extinct, ceasing to function because there are so few left” as a result of persecution, forced recruitment by armed groups, and being driven from their land by “the coca Mafia,” Mr Egeland said :

02/04/04Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. At least 80 trade unionists were killed or "disappeared" in 2003. The vast majority of human rights abuses against trade unionists were attributed to the security forces and paramilitary allies, although guerrilla forces were also held responsible for many abuses. Death threats against trade unionists almost doubled and impunity in cases of human rights violations against trade unionists is almost guaranteed.

On 20 April 2004, Gabriel Remolina, the President of the Bucaramanga Branch of SINALTRAINAL and his partner, Fanny Robles, were killed by unidentified gunmen. Concern for the security of trade unionists in Colombia is heightened, not only by these latest killings, but by the on-going failure to bring to justice those who kill and threaten trade unionists.

Amnesty International is concerned that the Colombian Government has failed to ensure substantive improvement in the security situation faced by trade unionists.

A new feature on news.amnesty looks at the most recent incidents and the situation facing trade unionists in Colombia -  

28/04/04The Colombian government was today urged to stop playing with the lives of three Irishmen acquitted this week of training Marxist rebels.

As supporters of Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley waited for word over whether they would be released from La Modelo Prison soon, they called for a “comprehensive security plan” from the Colombian authorities to ensure the men’s safe passage home to Ireland.

The Bring Them Home Campaign yesterday met Colombian government, Irish government, United Nations and International Red Cross officials.

Ms Ruane confirmed they also visited the three prisoners who were delighted with the verdict but “only too well aware of the dangers facing them and the Bring Them Home Campaign at this present time”.

Relatives of the trio and supporters were on stand-by back in Ireland today for news of a release.

Ms Ruane accused the Colombian authorities of putting the prisoners’ lives at risk in recent years with a number of “dangerous comments” about them.

She continued: “We have called on the Colombian government to provide us with a comprehensive security plan to inform us how they are going to protect the men and the Bring Them Home Campaign representatives who are over here prior to us leaving the country.

“Their irresponsible comments have created the problem. They must now present us with a solution.

“We will be telling the Colombian authorities today that we want the men home and we want them home now and to stop playing games with all our lives.”

27/04/04It is not yet clear whether three Irishmen cleared yesterday of training FARC guerillas whether they will be allowed to leave Colombia.

Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were found guilty in a Bogota court of travelling on false passports but were cleared of training Marxist FARC rebels.

A court official said the men would be expelled from Colombia once the terms of their sentences had been completed.

But the Colombian attorney general’s office later said it would appeal the innocent verdicts on the terrorism charges.

It is understood the men may not be allowed to leave Colombia while the case is under appeal.

Catríona Ruane, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly who headed the campaign to have the men freed following their August 2001 arrests, called on the Government to ensure the men’s safe and speedy return.

“The problem for us, the three men and the Irish Government is that there is no safe place in Colombia for these men,” she said.

She said the men would only receive a limited form of freedom while the appeal was pending and would not be allowed to leave the country.

Ms Ruane said it was ridiculous that the men may not be able to return home until after the appeal was heard.

“It would be like the British government appealing the Birmingham Six case and then the Birmingham Six having to stay in England until the appeal was completed,” she added.

Monaghan, from Co Donegal, received a 44-month sentence, McCauley, from Co Armagh, got 36 months and Dubliner Connolly, once Sinn Féin’s representative in Cuba, 26 months on the false documents charges.

Ms Ruane said Sinn Féin representatives would seek immediate talks with the Colombian authorities to enable the men to return to Ireland.

“We have obvious concerns now about the men’s safety and are seeking an urgent meeting with President Aribe to ensure their safe passage back to Ireland,” she said.

The three had denied training the Marxist rebels and insisted they were in Colombia to study the country’s peace process.

Ms Ruane said the decision, in a one-page judgment, to clear the men of training FARC guerillas had implications for those who had criticised them.

The South Down Assembly Member said: “There is a lesson in this for those who convicted these men in public statements and in the media before a verdict was even given in the court in Colombia.

“I think the lesson is that people have to start respecting the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.” :

24/04/04The latest indications from Colombia are that the verdict in the case of the three Irishmen charged with training FARC guerrillas and travelling on false passports will be delivered next Monday.

The trial of Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McAuley ended in the Colombian capital, Bogota, over eight months ago.

It is understood that the Chief Justice of Colombia will announce the verdict.

The three accused are facing up to 20 years in jail if they are convicted of both charges :  

22/04/04Colombia: Laboratory of war -- violence soars in Arauca

(Madrid) The human rights crisis in the oil-rich border region of Arauca is worsening as the warring parties intensify their efforts to control by force the department's natural resources, Amnesty International warned today.

The crisis in Arauca, which lies along Colombia's northern border with Venezuela, has been fuelled by the government's two-year military and security offensive in the area, supported by paramilitaries and powerful international, mainly US, military and economic interests.

Guerrilla groups, which have a longstanding presence in Arauca, have responded by repeatedly and increasingly breaching international humanitarian law in an attempt to repel the military and paramilitary advance.

In a new report published today, Amnesty International condemned the government's counter-insurgency strategy in Arauca, which has turned the department into a violent testing ground for many of its new security policies, which form part of its so-called "Democratic Security" strategy.

"The policies of the Colombian government have led to increasing levels of human rights violations and impunity. As is usual in Colombia, it is the civilian population that is suffering the most," said Amnesty International.

The Colombian armed forces, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups have significantly boosted their presence in the department. This has turned Arauca into one of the most militarized and violent regions in the country.

Guerrilla groups are targeting civilians, particularly local state officials. They are abusing international humanitarian law by repeatedly carrying out disproportionate attacks on military targets often using low-precision bombs and mortars. These attacks often result in civilian casualties.

The armed forces, in collaboration with paramilitary groups, are directly involved in killings, torture and "disappearances". They have stepped-up efforts to intimidate human rights defenders, peasant leaders and social activists. Often putting them in danger by labelling them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathisers.

By silencing these groups - at the forefront of denunciations of human rights violations committed by the army, their paramilitary allies and guerrilla groups - the authorities can maintain the fiction that the human rights situation is improving.

Paramilitaries, who established a firm foothold in Arauca in the wake of large-scale operations carried out by the Colombian security forces in the area in recent years, continue to kill and threaten civilians despite a year-long self-declared ceasefire.

"Arauca is on the front-line of Colombia's human rights crisis. Far from restoring order, the government's security strategy has made the department an even more dangerous place to live," Amnesty International said.

"The USA's support for military units operating in Arauca illustrates how the international community is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Colombia. Protection of civilians should take priority over economic and strategic interests, and is the most effective route to security in the region."

The Colombian government's security measures include recently introduced anti-terrorist legislation, and Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones, special security areas set up in 2002, which are no longer legally in operation but continue to be used by the security forces to target civilian populations.

For a full copy of the report "Colombia: A laboratory of war: Repression and Violence in Arauca" :

16/04/04Explosive allegations by a sacked officer of collusion between the Colombian army and death squads could damage cosy relations between Washington and Bogotá.

Uribe's star shines brightly in the US, where he is warmly received as Washington's leading hemispheric ally in the war on terror. Even so, this may not be the best moment for Congress to agree more aid for the Colombian armed forces. Not when a story has just broken in Bogotá which threatens to confirm allegations that they conspire with the United Self-defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) - an illegal paramilitary army headed by the country's most feared warlord, Carlos Castaño - to carry out massacres and terrorise farmers and villagers.

The man at the eye of the storm is former army general Jaime Alberto Uscátegui, who is awaiting trial for his participation in a gruesome paramilitary atrocity. In the tragic annals of Colombian atrocities there have been too many massacres, but events in the southern jungle town of Mapiripán in July 1997 haunt the Colombian collective memory with a particularly painful intensity. Uscátegui is accused of supporting the paramilitaries as they spent five days and nights terrorising the town, torturing more than thirty people to death and dismembering their victims alive in the municipal slaughterhouse.

Now, according to Bogotá's weekly news magazine Cambio, Uscátegui has put his military superiors on notice. From his quiet prison cell at an army base in the capital, the general has said that unless his superiors help him avoid jail, he will go public with documentary evidence of a policy of official military collusion with paramilitary terror.

As reported by Cambio, the documents in Uscátegui's possession were retrieved from an army computer belonging to a military intelligence agent and equipped with a special password used in all communications between the army and the paramilitaries.

According to the general, the material includes pamphlets produced at battalion headquarters and handed out by the paramilitaries at Mapiripán and other massacre sites, the rules of paramilitary engagement as drafted and drawn up by the army, and a complete list - including names and aliases - of all 93 members of the AUC front that committed the Mapiripán massacre. The latter item also contains the payroll and individual monthly salaries for all the members of the front, together with their rank and responsibilities. There are also texts of assorted death threats, and thank-you notes to the bosses of the Cali cocaine cartel, acknowledging their financial contributions :  

14/04/04Colombian President Alvaro Uribe defended his hard-line security agenda from criticism on Monday after panicked soldiers fatally shot five civilians, including a baby, after mistaking them for rebels.

Opposition lawmakers seized on the Easter weekend killing as proof that Uribe's hounding of the armed forces for results was taking its toll on soldiers and increasing risk to civilians.

Seeing movement in the darkness, a soldier shouted "Halt," but opened fire when one of the peasants began to run along a rural road on Saturday night. The troops shot from a distance of about 100 feet.

The defense ministry issued a report, chalking up the killing to a case of mistaken identity in mountainous zone with a long history of rebel activity, just 90 miles west of Bogota.

"I have motives for extreme sadness, but I lack administrative reasons to sanction the soldiers and officers," Uribe said, after visiting the remote area to personally grill army commanders over the killings.

Distraught family openly wondered how the soldiers could mistake a group carrying a seven-month-old baby to a hospital for rebels with the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC.

"They should get these (army) commanders glasses, because they're blind. They can't recognize a bunch of workers," exclaimed relative Hector Mendoza, in comments to local press.

Uribe, who has won praise for taken responsibility for operations which have gone wrong, and making military commanders publicly explain their errors, praised the army for its transparency.

"If this was about an army that violated human rights, those who shot the peasants would have tried to hide it, lie about it, or make the bodies disappear," Uribe said.

"Our commanders acted with responsibility and told the truth." : 

1104/04Colombian Bishops demand freedom for all those kidnapped and state that a Humanitarian Agreement is vital.

The Bishops have asked all parties in the conflict to end the "cruel suffering" caused by kidnapping.

Addressing these words to the guerrilla groups and in particular to FARC, the Bishops have asked them to give a sign that they desire peace. The best way to show this is by liberating those who are kidnapped.

Monsignor Pedro Rubiano, president of the Council of Bishops has invited the guerrillas to "work for peace" and has asked all sides involved to do all in their power to stop the cruelty of kidnapping. He asked all citizens to pray for the thousands of Colombians who are kidnapped, humiliated and deprived of their human dignity. 

The Bishops stressed the need for a Humanitarian Agreement. With reference to this, Monsignor Luis Augusto Castro, Archbishop of Tunja, vice-president of the Council and a member of the Commission for Peace, stated, "it was time to stop talking and to act. Those who are kidnapped cannot suffer any longer" : 

05/04/04In Europe, Ingrid Betancourt's captivity is seen as an indictment of Colombia's government. To Colombians, she is just one of many victims of a conflict that their president reckons he's winning

MARELBY AGATTÓN, who runs Colombia's Green Oxygen political movement, occupies a lonely cubicle in Bogotá surrounded by posters demanding the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt, the movement's kidnapped former presidential candidate. All of the posters are in French. In the local elections last October, Green Oxygen did poorly, electing only one mayor and ten councillors, although other leftish movements did well. Ms Agattón bemoans a lack of cash: Colombians haven't given a peso, so the movement relies on foreign donations.

Since her kidnap two years ago by the FARC guerrillas, Ms Betancourt has achieved mythical status in several European countries. There she is seen as a crusader for social justice against a corrupt and murderous political establishment—a Colombian Joan of Arc.

In France, hundreds of town councils have adopted her as a “citizen of honour”, as have others in Belgium and half a dozen further countries. That is tribute to a superbly organised campaign, led by Juan Carlos Lecompte, Ms Betancourt's current husband, an advertising executive (!) 

It is also because of Ms Betancourt's prior links to France. Her first marriage was to a French diplomat (she has dual nationality). 

Dominique de Villepin, France's foreign minister, is a friend and former tutor. Her book (“Until Death do us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia”) is a bestseller in France.... : 

04/04/04Carlos Bernal, the head of the opposition Independent Democratic Pole party for the Norte de Santander region and a member of the nation's Permanent Committee for Human Rights, was killed Thursday night along with a bodyguard in the city of Cucuta, 250 miles northeast of the capital, Bogota.

Cucuta is wracked by violence as outlawed paramilitary militias battle leftist guerrillas for control of the city, which lies at the foot of one of the country's biggest cocaine-producing regions.

Meanwhile, Independent Democratic Pole lawmaker Gustavo Pedro told Congress on Friday he had evidence that a paramilitary fighters was plotting to kill party leaders. He said police were investigating.

Paramilitary fighters, who emerged in the late 1980s to battle leftist rebels but quickly wound up waging their own dirty war of assassinations and massacres, have been blamed for more than 600 killings since declaring the cease-fire in December 2002.  : 

03/04/04European Commission adopts a new plan to deliver 8 million euros in humanitarian aid to victims of internal conflict in Colombia.

The European Commission has adopted a new €8 million humanitarian aid plan for Colombia. Its objectives are firstly to provide protection, assistance and relief to the many victims of the internal conflict in Colombia and secondly to alleviate the negative consequences of the massive population movements that the conflict has provoked, primarily within Colombia, but also in neighbouring countries like Ecuador.

The Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, Poul Nielson, said: "I recently met with Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón to discuss the humanitarian situation of Colombia. I expressed my deep concern over the plight of internally displaced persons and reiterated the Commission's intention to continue its assistance to this very vulnerable group. The decision today is a confirmation of this engagement."

Colombia has the world's largest internally displaced population (IDP) with almost 3 million forcibly displaced since 1985. The displaced are often forced to live in precarious shelters without access to basic services such as water or sanitation. Food shortages are widespread and certain communities are besieged or blockaded by armed groups and consequently find themselves cut-off from social services, including health and education services. The large number of IDP's is also causing social and environmental degradation in the receiving communities which are typically rural. The conflict in Colombia is increasingly having an effect on neighbouring countries. An estimated 50.000 Colombians (a number continuously rising) have sought refuge in Ecuador : 

02/04/04On March 17, OAS representative Sergio Caramagna reportedly met with Colombia’s paramilitary leaders. The event was widely covered in the national media.  

Human Rights Watch raised serious questions about the OAS role in talks between Colombia’s government and paramilitaries as this resolution was being debated. They pointed out that it is crucial, given developments so far in Colombia, that the OAS take steps to ensure that it does not bestow international legitimacy on a process that grants impunity to the perpetrators of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. 

Read the Letter published by HRW on March 31st :

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AlterFocus : info Ingrid Betancourt www.Betancourt.info