Death toll rises to 108 in remote village battle in Colombia

Sunday, May 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

QUIBDO, Colombia (AP) _ The death toll in an isolated village where rebels and paramilitaries are fighting for control rose to 108 Sunday while authorities continued to debate how to rescue the survivors.

U.N. officials said they warned the government that a tragedy was about to occur before the fighting started.

``It's lamentable that the government authorities ignored the early warning,'' the United Nations said in a prepared statement.

Among the dead were dozens who had taken refuge in a church in the village of Bojaya on Thursday. Authorities said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, fired homemade mortars into the church. It was unclear if they were aiming for the church.

People fleeing the violence began trickling into Quibdo, the capital of Choco state, some 58 miles south of Bojaya, on Sunday.

Juan Evaristo Mosquera, 70, abandoned his small farm in the village of Puerto Conto to flee with his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren on Friday. The family took two days to reach Quibdo by boat, stopping periodically because of fighting.

``We're good people, we've always lived in peace _ poor, but in peace,'' he said. ``Now we're just poor.''

Choco is the poorest, and one of the most conflicted states in Colombia. The rebels and paramilitaries are fighting in the region for control of strategic drug trafficking routes, officials say.

Military officials said that troops began heading into the region Sunday afternoon and church officials confirmed that residents had seen helicopters and military planes fly over late Sunday. Neither the military nor the police have outposts in the tiny riverfront village, which is reachable only by air or river.

The bishop of Quibdo, Fidel Cadadil, learned three weeks ago that the paramilitaries had entered the area _ formerly controlled by the rebels.

``We alerted local and national authorities of the danger for the civilian population of the confrontations that were imminent,'' he told The Associated Press.

It was unclear how, or if, the government responded to the warning.

President Andres Pastrana and high-ranking military commanders met with local authorities in Quibdo Sunday to plan the rescue mission.

After the meeting, he said 108 people had been confirmed dead, many of them infants, children and elderly people.

``What happened here was genocide on the part of the FARC,'' he said.

Rescue workers airlifted 18 seriously injured victims out of the village Saturday but officials worried that the small village hospital in Vigia del Fuente, across the river from Bojaya, was overwhelmed.

Authorities said at least 40 of the dead were infants and children.

Albeiro Parra, spokesman for the diocese in Quibdo, said some 80 people, including the town priest, were still missing Sunday. Many have reportedly fled into the jungle around the village.

Parra urged the authorities not to send the military into the region, fearing that anyone who might have been taken hostage might be hurt or killed during a military operation.

``The response should be humanitarian, not military,'' he said.

Luis Angel Moreno, director of the government's Solidarity Network in Choco state, said his office was working with the Red Cross to send 5,000 individual rations from Quibdo eight hours up the Atrato River by boat.

There is no telephone communication and only limited radio contact with Bojaya, 235 miles northwest of Bogota.

Colombia's 38-year-civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against the paramilitaries and government forces. Roughly 3,500 people _ most of them civilians _ are killed in fighting each year.