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COLOMBIA: Mayor Blames Massacre on Withdrawal of Security Forces

Yadira Ferrer

BOGOTA, May 6 2002 (IPS) - A mayor of a town in Colombia where 110 civilians – including 45 children – were killed after taking refuge in a church said Monday that he blamed the deaths on the fact that the area had been abandoned by security forces two years ago.

The United Nations described last Thursday’s tragic episode, which took place in Bojayá, a town of 11,200, as a “war crime.” Around 100 civilians were also injured as a result of the crossfire between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas.

A Catholic church to which around 500 residents of Bojayá, in the northwestern department of Chocó, had fled for safety was hit by a homemade bomb fabricated with a gas cylinder.

The fighting between the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in which the civilians were caught up, was a result of “the withdrawal of security forces” from the town, Bojayá Mayor Ariel Palacio said Monday.

“When there is no presence of the state, these groups (the insurgents and paramilitaries) slowly take control until getting a grip over the area,” Palacio told the Caracol radio station. The security forces pulled out of the area in late March 2000.

He added that 25 days ago, the AUC arrived to the area, which was dominated by the FARC, the country’s main guerrilla group. Municipal authorities urged local residents to take measures to protect themselves, given the absence of the army and the police.

Palacio said army and police protection was repeatedly requested, “through the departmental (provincial) government.” But the response was that “there were neither the mechanisms nor the means to maintain a permanent military or police presence” in the area.

People’s Defender Eduardo Cifuentes and the Social Pastoral of the Roman Catholic Church had also warned of the danger that the civilian population of Bojayá was facing due to the presence of the armed groups and the absence of state security forces.

A source with the Office of the People’s Defender who asked not to be identified told IPS that 200 of Colombia’s 1,092 municipalities are at risk of similar incidents, as they are located in areas disputed by the armed groups involved in the four- decades-old civil conflict.

Departmental parliamentary Deputy Joaquín Palacio, who lost 42 relatives in the Bojayá church massacre, told IPS that the AUC and the FARC have been fighting a turf war in the area for the past six years.

The FARC has been present in the area since 1981, and “it moved freely around the local villages until 1987, when the AUC showed up,” said Joaquín Palacio.

In March 2000, the FARC launched a major offensive to push the paramilitaries out of the area. It also “put an end to the police presence, and became the authority in the town, controlling everything” up to a few months ago, when the AUC returned, the lawmaker added.

The government reported Monday that around 4,000 soldiers were attempting to gain control of the territory around Bojayá, where fighting between the FARC and the AUC continues.

President Andrés Pastrana, who blamed the mass killing of civilians on the insurgents, announced that he would request the presence of a UN humanitarian mission “to tell the world about the atrocities committed by the FARC.”

Pastrana also asked the European Union to reconsider its decision to exclude the FARC from a list of terrorist groups released last Friday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported Monday that 544 people had fled Bojayá after the attack. Of that total, 116 made it to Quibdó, the capital of the department of Chocó. The rest are in Vigía del Fuerte, a town on the way to Quibdó, as they were unable to continue their journey.

The United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, issued a communique Monday stating that the attack on Bojayá was a glaring violation of International Humanitarian Law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the protocol on the participation of children in armed conflicts.

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