Heavy Fighting Endangers Civilian Population

News from Colombia | on: Friday, 21 March 2008

A week of intense combat between the Colombian military and the FARC guerrilla group in southern Colombia is putting the lives of hundreds of people at risk. The fighting, in the Toribio area of Cauca department, has already seen one civilian killed and 13 others injured. Indiscriminate attacks by helicopter gun-ships have hit 30 homes and reports from the region claim that soldiers are using the civilian population as human shields.

The heaviest fighting has occurred in and around the villages of El Damian and La Maria as well as the indigenous reserve of Tacueyo where one civilian, Lourdes Escue, has already been killed. According to reports intense bombardment of the area has destroyed homes and crops, killed farm animals and forced hundreds of people to flee the region. Panicking civilians that have not been able to leave the area have taken refuge in the school in El Damian and around 600 people are now trapped there.

When soldiers approached the school indigenous leaders asked that they leave so as not to endanger those sheltering there. The request was refused and as a result of fighting near the school building, at least two civilians were wounded. According to witnesses, the Air Force has dropped explosives on a nearby group of homes totally destroying 12 of them and damaging another 20.

Shortages in supplies of drinking water, food, medicine and blankets have led to attempts by the Red Cross to get into the region and assist the trapped civilians though combat is too heavy in some places. The Red Cross and local indigenous authorities have issued an urgent call to the Army to halt their attack whilst civilians are evacuated although to date there has been no response.

"Whilst there have been skirmishes in the past year we have seen nothing on this scale, with the awful consequences for the indigenous communities in the region" said German Valencia, head of human rights for the North Cauca Indigenous Association.

The Toribio area has long been a stronghold of the 6th Front of the FARC though the Army has vowed to try and push the rebels out of the region.

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