Colombian guerrillas kill 17 Indians, human rights groups say

Guerrillas in Colombia tortured and killed 17 Indians who they believed were helping the government, a governor and two human rights organizations said Wednesday.

Marxist rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, swept into a village in southwest Colombia last week and abducted an undetermined number of Awa Indians, Human Rights Watch said. 

The guerrillas tortured and killed 17 Awas, including at least two minors, the human rights group said.

Another human rights group, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, or ONIC, also reported the allegations.

Navarro Wolff, the governor of Narino province, where the Awas live, decried the reported killings, CNN reported.

"The guerrillas took several families, recriminating them for their supposed collaboration with the army," Wolff told El Pais newspaper. "A young man was able to escape and told how he had been tied. Later, they tortured him, they beat him and they killed eight with with a knife."

Nine other villagers also were executed, unconfirmed reports said.

The allegations are based partly on the information provided by the young man who said he escaped. Human Rights Watch also said it received reports from "reliable sources," whom the organization did not name.

"These cruel killings violate the most basic principles of human decency and dignity," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "There is no possible excuse or justification for these horrific actions."

The remote village is a 12-hour trip away from the nearest large town, and no independent verification has been obtained. Besides the unforgiving terrain, the presence of land mines and the existence of numerous armed groups virtually prevent outsiders from visiting the area.

Monsignor Ruben Salazar Gomez, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, joined the chorus of criticism, alleging a "crime the whole country should condemn."

Another religious leader said the Awa need protection.

"We are very worried about the Awa community," said Monsignor Gustavo Giron Higuita, the bishop of the city of Tumaco. "It is a community that is pretty unprotected and that in the past five years has received a type of persecution by armed groups."

The prelate said that although there were indications that the FARC was behind the killings, "we are not certain of that," El Pais said.

The Awas, he said, "are pacifist, want respect of their organization and want to regain their traditions. We have been accompanying them in this process, and that's why this hurts so much."

New York-based Human Rights Watch said group members have made numerous visits to Narino, which is one of Colombia's 32 departments, or states. Narino is in southwest Colombia, on the Pacific Ocean and the border with Ecuador.

The area has a heavy presence of various armed groups and Colombian military forces, and has among the worst human rights conditions in Colombia, the human rights group said. The Awa territories have been particularly affected.

The Colombian government has issued a "risk report," warning authorities that civilians in the region are at risk.

The FARC is said to have "confined" some villages, cutting them off from the outside world and not allowing anyone to enter or leave.

In another report Wednesday, ONIC, the indigenous human rights group in Colombia, said the FARC has abducted 120 Awas since February 4.

ONIC said the FARC kidnapped 20 Awa men, women and children February 4 from the Barbacoas area in Narino. The rebels returned the next day and grabbed children who had remained behind, ONIC said, according to Caracol Radio.

ONIC also reported that a number of Awa had been knifed to death.

The FARC, the largest and oldest guerrilla group in Colombia, has been waging war against the government since the 1960s.

Security analysts say the FARC has 9,000 to 12,000 armed guerillas and several thousand supporters, mostly in rural areas.
The guerrilla group operates mostly in Colombia but has carried out extortion, kidnappings, bombings and other activities in Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador.

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