Four Civilians Killed, Human Rights Official Accuses Military
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A human rights official accused the Colombian military Friday of intentionally killing four civilians and of indiscriminate bombing with jets in northern Colombia, where battles are raging with leftist guerrillas.
Jorge Gomez, president of the Human Rights Committee in Barrancabermeja, said in an interview that the private organization received ″testimony from witnesses and other proof″ that a naval patrol opened fire Wednesday without provocation on a boat carrying peasants on the Magdalena River.
He refused to say what the other evidence was.
Bogota’s daily El Tiempo quoted an unidentified military official Thursday as saying the patrol was searching the boat, and found supplies destined for guerrillas, when it was fired on by rebels.
The patrol returned fire and the boat’s passengers were killed in the exchange, the official said, according to El Tiempo.
A Defense Ministry spokeswoman said Friday she had no information about the battle.
Gomez said the two fisherman and two women killed in the attack were buried late Thursday in Barrancabermeja, 149 miles north of Bogota.
He said two girls, aged 9 and 10, and a woman were wounded by the naval patrol. One of the girls was in critical condition in an area hospital suffering from a shot to the head, he said.
Barrancabermeja is a few miles south of the zone where the military has been battling leftist guerrillas this past week after discovering what it called a rebel base camp.
The guerrillas reportedly belong to the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, the National Liberation Army and the People’s Liberation Army, Colombia’s three most active insurgent groups.
Gomez said the air force had been bombing the area indiscriminately. The radio network Caracol, quoting military sources, reported this week that the air force was using A-37 jets to bomb the zone, between Bolivar and Antioquia states.
The only A-37 jets in Colombia’s air force are eight that arrived in the country last September as part of a $65 million U.S. aid package to help in the country’s fight against drug traffickers.
The A-37 is a ground support aircraft that can be used for reconnaissance, strafing and bombing. The Bush administration placed no restrictions on the use of the aircraft.
Gomez said several human rights officials have seen jets flying over Barrancabermeja, then heard distant bombing. He added that several refugees have provided witness accounts of indiscriminate bombing by planes and machine gunfire from helicopters.
Sonya Nevado, a councilwoman for Barrancabermeja, said a flood of refugees had poured into the town as a result of the fighting. She said another, larger group of refugees arrived in Yondo, a town 10 miles east.
Nevado could not give exact refugee figures, but Gomez said at least 110 peasants were being housed in a temporary shelter.
Ms. Nevado said many civilians were trapped in the combat zone because the army had cordoned it off. Gomez said the official civilian death toll is sure to rise when rights officials and doctors are allowed into the zone.
Miguel Cuesta, rights director for the Patriotic Union, said the leftist party demanded a government commission be allowed to visit the area, but the military still had not responded to the demand.
On Wednesday, a Colombian army official said four soldiers, a police officer and at least 30 guerrillas were killed in battles in seven states.
The official, Gen. Hernan Manuel Guzman, said in a radio interview that the military was carrying on ″the biggest operations in recent memory″ against guerrillas in Antioquia and Bolivar states.
The Defense Ministry has still not released figures on the number of dead and injured in the operations.
On Thursday the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest of Colombia’s guerrilla groups, proposed in a letter to President Virgilio Barco that a national referendum be held to solve the country’s conflicts.
The letter, published Friday by El Tiempo, proposed a constitutional assembly to reform the country’s political system after the referendum, which it said should be held April 29.
The letter suggested the FARC was prepared to disarm and transform itself into a political party if the government carried out the proposed actions.
Barco had made no response to the letter by late Friday. The group has an estimated 5,000 armed members.