Colombia: At least 23 dead in clashes between armed rebel groups | Conflict News

Bogota Colombia – Violent clashes between Colombian rebel groups near the country’s border with Venezuela have left at least 23 dead, Defense Minister Diego Molano told a press conference on Monday.

Fighting erupted over the weekend in Arauca as members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) clashed with dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which rejects a 2016 peace deal, which saw the group demobilize, ending five decades of armed conflict in the country. The ELN is the largest armed rebel group in Colombia.

The groups were vying for control of illegal economies such as drug trafficking, according to a statement from the Colombian military.

Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman earlier noted at least 16 people have been killed and a dozen families driven from their homes.

The ombudsman’s office Express “Deep concern at the escalation of the armed conflict in Arauca due to the confrontation between illegal armed groups which put the civilian population in serious danger”.

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

“During the last hours, there have been killings, threats, illegal detentions, massive displacement and risks of forced displacement in border municipalities, in particular in Tame, Fortul, Saravena and Arauquita,” he said. -he declares.

Safety reinforcements

Juan Carlos Villate, a government official who deals with human rights issues in Arauca, told local radio station W on Monday morning that “the number [of deaths] could increase to 50. ”Villate said the violence was the worst he had seen in the region in the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Arauca, 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] local inhabitants ”.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said a meeting with security officials had been held since the violence began, while security reinforcements had been sent to Arauca following the clashes.

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

The Colombian government has for several years accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of harboring FARC dissidents and ELN fighters in the Venezuelan border area – an accusation Caracas continuously denies.

Unanswered questions

Adam Isaacson, a researcher at the Washington Bureau’s Latin America think tank, said fighting may have broken out for control of Arauca, an extremely strategic department that shares a long uncontrolled border with Venezuela.

“Everything from drugs to stolen cattle to kidnapped people go through there,” he told Al Jazeera. “The armed groups tax everything, even beer and food. In addition, there is a lot of oil in Arauca, which means that there are a lot of extractive companies that armed groups could extort.

Isaacson said that Arauca is an ELN stronghold in Colombia and that during his visit in 2019, he was told that a non-aggression truce between the ELN and FARC dissidents was in place there- low.

“This non-aggression agreement is clearly over since last weekend,” he said. “Why now? The ex-FARC have probably become stronger, especially the 10th Front dissidents who resisted Venezuelan forces last year, and now they have a bigger presence.

Juan Pappier, senior researcher on the Americas at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the alliance between the ELN and the Martin Villa 10th Front, a FARC splinter group, “appears to be breaking down.”

“We have received disturbing reports of deaths, forced displacement and kidnappings. The authorities must take urgent measures to protect the civilian population and help the victims, ”Pappier told Al Jazeera.

“For years, the conflict between the FARC and the ELN tormented the inhabitants of Arauca and Apure. They cannot be left on their own as a new version of this conflict seems [be coming] living in the area.

Still, Isaacson said there were many unanswered questions about Sunday’s violence.

“We don’t know which groups went on the offensive or what triggered it, or if this is just an outbreak or the start of a new war,” he said. “But certainly since last weekend, if the death toll and displacement that we are seeing are correct, this is one of the most serious humanitarian situations we have seen in Colombia in recent years.”

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