Colombia Denies Army Massacred Children Print
Colombia?s defence minister has denied accusations that army troops massacred eight peasants, including four children, in a remote village in northwest Colombia a week ago, saying no soldiers were in the area at the time.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday issued a statement calling on authorities to investigate the February 21 killings in San Jose de Apartado, a village in Antioquia state near the border with Panama.

The village had been declared a ?peace community? by local officials seven years ago in an attempt to bar Colombia?s warring factions from entering.

?The information we have so far is that the armed forces were not responsible,? Defence Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told reporters. ?The nearest soldiers were three or four days walk from there.?

Local human rights groups, Catholic church officials and a former mayor of Apartado who have all investigated the massacre say villagers reported seeing only members of the Army?s 17th Brigade, based in the nearby town of Carepa, entering the village.

?We have gathered sufficient testimonies that show that members of the 17th Brigade were responsible for this crime,? said Elkin Ramirez, a human rights lawyer.

?It was the armed forces who entered at that time and they are still there now,? said the Rev. Javier Giraldo, a Catholic priest who has been working to bring peace to the area.

Colombia?s armed forces chief, Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, insisted that there were no troops anywhere near Apartado when the attack occurred. He pointed to the country?s main Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the likely culprits.

He told a press conference on Tuesday that residents had reported that three of the victims had been involved in an argument with FARC commanders and that the rebels had accused one of them of being an informant for the military.

Fighting between Marxist rebels, outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups and government forces has for years plagued the region, a strategic corridor for drugs and arms smuggling through Central America.

UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Rupert Colville, quoting local witnesses, said the victims included Luis Eduardo Guerra, the founder of the peace community, his wife and his 11-year-old son. Also killed was another couple from the community, their two children, including a two-year-old and another man.

The agency said they were brutally murdered by unidentified men in military fatigues and their bodies were left in a shallow grave. The UNHCR?s deputy chief for Colombia, Amerigo Incalcaterra, was scheduled to travel to Apartado today, the agency said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general?s office said a team of forensic experts has reached Apartado to investigate the killings.

Uribe denounced the accusations as an effort by government opponents to discredit the armed forces.