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Colombia: UN extremely concerned, refugee violence

Colombia: UN refugee agency ‘extremely concerned’ at new violence against civilians

Expressing new alarm at the impact of more than four decades of conflict on Colombia’s civilians, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced “extreme concern” at increasing violence over the past two weeks in the south of the Andean country, where 15 people have been killed, some of them in fighting between irregular armed groups.

“There are credible reports of several other deaths and disappearances,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “UNHCR is also alarmed that new irregular armed groups appear to be forming in the area.”

By Saturday, 15 bodies had arrived in the town of Policarpa from nearby villages, five of them civilians killed in fighting between irregular armed groups on Friday. The other 10 had been murdered and although no one has claimed responsibility, the manner of their killing was consistent with murders committed by irregular armed groups, he said.

He added that the Agency, together with along with other UN agencies, the Colombian Ombudsman's office and the Norwegian Refugee Council, had also reluctantly agreed to accompany more than 2,200 displaced people who insisted on returning on Friday to the Policarpa of Nariño department.

UNHCR had strongly urged them to postpone their return because of threats from an irregular armed group that they would be killed if they returned home, but they insisted on going without delay, even if they had to go alone. However, they urgently requested that UNHCR and other international organizations accompany them to avoid retaliation by irregular armed groups.

“Faced with the difficult choice of having to accompany their return in potentially dangerous conditions or leaving more than 2,200 people completely without protection, UNHCR agreed to help, and on Friday a convoy of some 100 vehicles carrying more than 2,200 people went back to the Policarpa region,” Mr. Redmond said.

“UNHCR remains extremely concerned about the medium- and long-term protection of those who have returned to northern Nariño,” he added. “We will send missions this week to both (the villages of) Sanchez and Santa Rosa and hope to be able to put in place with other organizations a programme enabling a regular presence in the area. “Nevertheless, the presence of humanitarian staff will not in itself be enough to guarantee the security of thousands of people at risk in the region.”

UNHCR has also voiced mounting concern in recent months over the disproportionate impact on Colombia’s indigenous communities of the fighting between Government forces, leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries that has displaced 2 million people overall. Forced displacement is especially hard on indigenous people, whose culture and traditions are closely linked to their ancestral lands.

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