British-Trained Military Units Terrorise Civilian Population

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 3 March 2008

Two British-trained High Mountain Battalions of the Colombian Army are involved in an ongoing military operation in the Colombian department of Tolima which has seen thousands of civilians surrounded and prevented from leaving a large rural valley. The trapped civilians, mainly peasant farmers, have been subjected to four weeks of intense bombardment and machine gun fire and all communications to the area have been cut.

The operation began on February 9th when approximately one thousand troops entered the 'Hermosas' canon in the Chaparral region of Tolima. The soldiers immediately cut the area off with roadblocks and have prevented people, food or medicine from entering or leaving. Intense bombing and machine gun fire from helicopters has forced hundreds to flee their homes and has cut off electricity and water supplies in the area. The Army has also declared a 6pm curfew in the entire region.

According to the Association of Country Workers of Tolima (ASTRACATOL) residents of the region are living in terror of the constant military operations which has also seen troops raiding homes, accusing local of supporting the FARC guerrilla insurgency and, allegedly, a series of arbitrary detentions and/or forced disappearances. As well as the British-trained High Mountain Battalions troops from the Colombian Army's 6th Brigade and 8th Mobile Brigade are involved in the operation.

According to Colombian journalist Nelson Lombana Silva a FARC guerrilla column is operating in the Chaparral region. Mr Silva says that sketchy information and rumours coming out of the area report that the guerrillas ambushed and killed 60 soldiers, leading to the intense response. However, details of what exactly is occurring are impossible to confirm as the military has totally surrounded and cut-off the region.

ASTRACATOL, the only organisation which has been able to communicate with inhabitants of the area, has reported that makeshift military posts have been established in and around homes and schools in an effort to use the civilian population as human shields. They have also reported on the destruction of crops and farm animals by bombers and their concern over the lack of clean drinking water in the region after the Army destroyed pipes carrying drinking water to the area.

ASTACATOL, whose leader was assassinated by soldiers in January (for more see has alleged that as well as the immediate counter-insurgency aims of the military assault on the region there are other important factors at play, including the potential to dam the canon for a huge hydro-electric project. The Association says that for some time residents have been subjected to threats and harassment at the hands of the Army and paramilitary units in an attempt to force them to leave the area therefore clearing the way for the project.

The regional Human Rights Observatory has reported that the military operation is aimed at destroying the strong and well-organised peasant communities in the region. The Observatory, which was established in December 2007, argues that the attack is in revenge for anti-government political activity in the area in recent months. In October over 4,000 inhabitants of Chapparral marched to the regional capital city of Ibague demanding that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe resign due to his links to paramilitary figures. High profile local protests have also been held to highlight ongoing human rights violations being perpetrated by the Army in Tolima more generally.

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