Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

Bogota Colombia – Violent confrontations between Colombian rebel groups near the country’s border with Venezuela have killed at least 16 people, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said Monday.

Sources told Al Jazeera that most of those killed in Colombia’s eastern Arauca department on Sunday are suspected Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) dissidents and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Some FARC members rejected A 2016 peace agreement which demobilized the group, which brought an end to five decades of armed conflict in the country, and the dissidents announced a return to arms in 2018. The ELN is Colombia’s largest remaining armed rebel group.

Late Sunday, Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office expressed “Deep concern over the escalation of the armed conflict in Arauca as a result of the confrontation between illegal armed groups that seriously endangers the civilian population.”

The office called on local authorities to be present and protect civilians in the border area, who saw an increase in violence linked to armed groups since early 2021.

“In the last few hours, there have been killings, threats, illegal arrests, mass displacements and the risk of forced displacement in border municipalities, specifically in Tame, Fortul, Saravena and Arauquita,” the statement said.

Security reinforcements

The Colombian president’s office has not yet announced a death toll from the violence on Sunday.

Juan Carlos Villate, a civil servant dealing with human rights issues in Arauca, told local W Radio Station on Monday morning that “the number [of deaths] can increase up to 50 ”. Villate said the violence was the worst he had seen in the region in the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, Arauca’s mayor, Etelivar Torres Vargas, said in a statement on Sunday that he “strongly rejects the violent events”, which he said “directly caused shock, fear and anxiety. [among] locals ”.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said a meeting with security officials had been held since the violence broke out, while security reinforcements were sent to Arauca in the aftermath of the clashes.

Defense Minister Diego Molano also said on Monday that there would be another meeting in Arauca this afternoon on how to best protect the local population and control the border area with Venezuela.

The Colombian government has for several years accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of hosting FARC dissidents and ELN fighters in Venezuela’s border area – an accusation Caracas constantly deny.

Unanswered questions

Adam Isaacson, a researcher at the Washington office on Latin America’s brainstorming, said the fighting may have erupted over control of Arauca, a highly strategic department that shares a long, uncontrolled border with Venezuela.

“Everything from drugs, to stolen cattle, to kidnapped human crossings,” he told Al Jazeera. “Armed groups tax everything, even beer and food. “There is also a lot of oil in Arauca, which means there are a lot of mining companies that can blackmail armed groups.”

Isaacson said Arauca is a stronghold of the ELN in Colombia, and that when he visited in 2019, he was told that a non-aggression pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents was in place there.

“That non-aggression deal is clearly over this past weekend,” he said. “Why now? Probably the former FARC got stronger, especially the 10th Front dissidents who stood their ground against the Venezuelan forces last year, and now they have a greater presence. ”

Juan Pappier, a senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the alliance between the ELN and the Martin Villa 10th Front, a FARC dissident group, “apparently breaks apart”.

“We have received alarming reports of deaths, forced relocations and kidnappings. “Authorities must urgently take steps to protect the civilian population and assist victims,” ​​Pappier told Al Jazeera.

“The conflict between the FARC and ELN has plagued people in Arauca and Apure for years. They can not be left to their own devices, as a new version of this conflict appears to be [be coming] alive in the region. ”

Yet Isaacson said many questions remain unanswered about Sunday’s violence.

“We do not know which groups went on the offensive or what caused it, and whether it was just a flare-up or the start of a new war,” he said. “But certainly from this past weekend, if the death toll and displacement numbers we see are at all accurate, it’s one of the most serious humanitarian situations we’ve seen in Colombia in recent years.”

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