Colombia This Week -- March 15, 2004

Fri 05- ANTHOC: activist killed in Barranquilla; AUC unwilling to concentrate troops.

· José Luis Torres, an activist for the ANTHOC health workers' union has been shot and killed in Barranquilla, Atlántico department, heightening concern for the safety of other ANTHOC members. They have all received death threats from a paramilitary group. José Luis Torres worked as a concierge at the Barranquilla General Hospital. Unidentified gunmen at the main entrance to the hospital killed him.

· The nation's top paramilitary leaders tell Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo they need a meeting with President Uribe Velez to continue talks over demobilising their forces in concentration areas. Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso voiced doubts that the government could provide adequate security for fighters in those areas, reiterating demands for guarantees against extradition to the US, where both men are wanted on drug charges. They declared unwillingness to concentrate their troops in designated areas, El Tiempo reports.

· Further to armed confrontations in the Medio Atrato region, NGO Project Counselling Service (PCS) reports that local organisations fear a repeat of the Bellavista massacre of 2002. Since last year the paramilitaries have been advancing into the area to the dismay of local church and ethnic organisations, who fear that the increased presence (at present an estimated 400 paramilitary troops) together with the historic presence of the guerrillas may aggravate the armed conflict considerably and jeopardise the security of the local Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations. PCS also fears that these confrontations will lead to fresh waves of displacement and the imposition of food and economic blockades, heightening an already serious food security situation. This situation could easily turn into a grave humanitarian catastrophe.


Sat 06 – Paramilitary faction announces withdrawal of fighters from the city of Barrancabermeja.

· In a statement on their website, the Bloque Central Bolivar of the Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) reports that "in the next few days, 1,500 fighters from this group will pull out from the main eight urban areas in the region, 172 from the city of Barrancabermeja". The announcement was made hours before President Uribe visited the city to attend a community council, El Tiempo reports.

· A fact-finding delegation from the US has reported that executives of a Coca Cola subsidiary in Colombia admitted that company employees might have worked with paramilitaries. The delegation, led by New York City councillor Hiram Monserrate, spent 10 days in Colombia investigating alleged paramilitary violence against members of the National Food Industry Workers Union (Sinaltrainal), Colombia Week reports.


Sun 07 –Gaviria calls on AUC troops to concentrate; Colombia spends US $ 1 m in foreign aid.

· Secretary General of the Organisation for American States (OAS) Cesar Gaviria urges the commanders of the paramilitaries to concentrate in designated areas across the country in order to verify the demobilisation process of this armed group. Gaviria made this call despite the results of the last meeting between the Colombian government and the AUC, in which the main commanders challenged the Colombian government to demonstrate that they can secure control of the areas currently under paramilitary influence, El Tiempo reports.

· El Espectador reports that last year the Colombian government spent 1m dollars in development aid to other countries despite the non-fulfilment of basic needs of millions in Colombia. Colombia is receiving more than US $220 m per year in foreign aid for development programmes, most of them focused on the displacement situation of up to three million people - one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the western hemisphere.

· Colombia's armed forces chief reports that the country's illegal groups persist in putting teenagers on the front lines and 44 have died in combat so far this year. In the same period last year, five soldiers under 18 years old died, Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina said. Of the 44 minors killed this year, 24 fought with FARC and ELN and eleven others fought for paramilitary factions; nine were part of common criminal groups. Human Rights Watch estimates that 11,000 minors currently fill the ranks of Colombia's illegal armed groups. The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that worldwide there are about 300,000 soldiers who are still minors.


Mon 08 – Trial begins for FARC commander; Colombia offers new oil deals to US companies.

· Ricardo Palmera, alias Simon Trinidad pleads guilty to a charge of rebellion but says he is innocent of murder and kidnapping as his trial begins via an unprecedented video hookup in the two-way link from his maximum-security jail. "I assume full responsibility for my association with the FARC as an act of rebellion against the state," Palmera told judges from Combita prison. "I dedicated myself primarily to political and educational activities." The charge of rebellion carries a penalty of nearly seven years in prison, Reuters reports.

· Scrambling to halt a slide in crude output, Colombian officials are visiting Houston to sweeten the terms for foreign companies that search for oil. Changes to contracts such as scrapping time limits on production rights and forced partnerships with state-run oil company Ecopetrol, are expected, which officials hope will perk interest. Oil output in Colombia dropped to 541,000 barrels per day (bpd) last year from 815,000 bpd just five years ago as the biggest fields declined. Output is forecast at 530,000 bpd in 2004, Reuters reports.

· International Crisis Group releases a briefing paper examining the desirability and feasibility of a release or an exchange of hostages and kidnap victims for imprisoned insurgents under conditions of ongoing fighting. The paper concludes that a well-designed negotiation strategy could lead not only to the freeing of all those the FARC holds in the medium term, but also to peace in the longer term. "Giving the FARC such de facto recognition would not be easy for the government to accept", says Director Markus Schultze-Kraft, "but engaging it in talks about such a swap can be justified if it leads to wider political negotiations to terminate the conflict, with the early release of kidnap victims and an end to kidnapping being key elements in that process".

· Speaking from an undisclosed location FARC commander Raul Reyes told AFP that "Betancourt and 70 other hostages, including three U.S. citizens and 20 Colombian politicians are all alive and well", but the hostages are concerned there is no agreement for their release. He provided no proof of the health of the hostages.


Tues 09 - Colombia rebels spurn France deal; Army reports operations against FARC in Tolima.

Colombian guerrillas have rejected an offer by France to welcome any of their fighters freed in exchange for hostages kidnapped by them. Rebels from FARC hold many politicians and security officials. Meanwhile, the husband of kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt has fled Colombia after receiving death threats. Mrs Betancourt, a French citizen, was kidnapped by FARC two years ago. Because of her French citizenship, France had offered to take any guerrillas released from prison so they could not join the fighting again. But the FARC, while thanking the French, refused their offer, insisting that any guerrillas freed must be allowed to stay in their homeland. Mr Lecompte has campaigned tirelessly to get the government to agree to the prisoner exchange, which it has refused to consider. He said he did not know where the death threats against him came from, but suspected they were from right-wing paramilitaries with links to the army, BBC reports.

Commander of the army's Fifth Division, Gen. Hernan Alonso Ortiz reports that two FARC members have died in fighting in a remote area in Tolima province, southeast of Bogota, while one guerrilla was killed in combat in the Sucre region, to the north of the capital. Another 40 suspected rebels were rounded up in separate operations over the past 24 hours across the country, the army said in a statement.

Colombian warplanes destroy a light aircraft suspected of carrying drugs and weapons from Brazil after it landed on a clandestine airstrip in rebel-held jungle, authorities report. Authorities said the aircraft failed to respond to signals after entering Colombia illegally, but did not say whether the US provided support for the operation. The air force said it had destroyed five airplanes so far in 2004, including another aircraft that arrived illegally from Brazil late last month, AP reports.


Weds 10 – UN locks horns with GoC over human rights; Castaño sentenced for Garzon's killing.

The United Nations issues a harsh assessment of Colombian President Uribe's crackdown on armed groups. The annual report on Colombia by U.N. High Commission for Human Rights charged the government with abuses, arbitrary roundups and anti-terror laws that give sweeping powers to the military. "The human rights situation remains critical," said Michael Fruhling, head of the Colombian Office of the U.N. High Commissioner in the annual report. The government immediately rebuked the U.N. report for failing to take into account "the gravity of the threat" to the country posed by illegal armed groups, Reuters reports.

Paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño is sentenced in absentia to 38 years in prison for ordering the assassination of a popular journalist who had lobbied for the release of FARC hostages and met with rebel leaders several times, according to the Collective of Lawyers Jose Alvear Restrepo. Lawyer Alirio Uribe said a Bogota court convicted Castaño after an investigation that nevertheless failed to identify the two hired gunmen who shot Jaime Garzon as he headed to his office at the Radionet radio station in Bogota in 1998. Castaño, who is in hiding to avoid arrest on numerous charges ranging from terrorism to homicide as well as U.S. charges of drug trafficking, has denied he ordered Garzon's murder. Castaño is currently pursuing peace talks with the government aimed at disbanding his 12,000-strong faction by 2006, AP reports.

According to authorities, Colombian soldiers kill eight paramilitary fighters during clashes in a rural area near Ginebra, (Valle). Seventeen others were also captured, including a financial chief, El Colombiano reports.


Thurs 11 - 9 ELN killed in Antioquia; authorities seize US $100 m in properties from drug cartel.

Colombian troops kill nine suspected members of Colombia's smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, in fighting near Concepcion, (Antioquia). One soldier also died in the clashes, said Gen. Luis Garcia Chavez, the commander of the army's Second Division, El Colombiano reports.

Colombian police report they have seized houses, ranches and apartments worth $100 million that they believe belong to one of the country's most wanted cocaine traffickers. Backed by helicopters, the police "Search Bloc" swooped on properties they say belong to Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante, one of the fugitive heads of the Norte del Valle drug cartel, based in Cali. He is wanted for extradition to the US and is allegedly responsible for between a third and half of the Colombian cocaine exports to the US, El Tiempo reports.

Colombian police capture the commander of an urban guerrilla unit accused of murdering the ex-president of Congress' Peace Commission and six others. Eladio Diaz Artunduaga, was picked up last week in a rundown suburb of Soacha. Artunduaga is believed to have ordered the murder of former Congressman and leader of Colombia's Liberal Party, Diego Turbay Cote, his mother and five others in December 2000.

At a news conference in Bogota, Michael Fruhling, the UNHCHR's top Colombia envoy, acknowledges that security has improved under Uribe's presidency, but said the number of atrocities being committed in the conflict remains "very high." He nevertheless praised the government for retaking vast swathes of territory from the rebels and restoring the rule of law there. Fruhling condemned Colombia's two leftist rebel groups and their outlawed right-wing paramilitary foes for "not respecting even in the most minimal way" international humanitarian laws. He said they continue to kill and kidnap innocent civilians, force families to flee their homes, recruit minors into their ranks and sow anti-personnel mines. Fruhling also denounced recent legislation drawn up by Uribe that allows the armed forces to arrest suspects, tap phones and search homes without a warrant, saying it violates international law.


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