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Colombian Paramilitary Attacks Cause Panamanian Indigenous People to Flee - 2003-01-25

The United Nations refugee agency says hundreds of Panamanian indigenous people have fled their homes in the face of attacks this week from Colombian paramilitaries.

The U.N. refugee agency says 472 Panamanian indigenous people, including 324 children, fled in search of protection after their villages were attacked by Colombian paramilitaries. They went to Boca de Cupe, in the central Darien region of Panama.

The agency says four indigenous community leaders were killed during the attack, and three foreign journalists were kidnapped. The journalists have since reportedly been released.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski says the villages that were attacked are only a few kilometers from the Colombian border, in what is considered one of the world's most inaccessible regions. "The attack is an illustration that there is a growing impact, a negative impact of the conflict inside Colombia on Panama and other countries bordering Colombia," said Kris Janowski. "It is not the first time that there has been an attack. There have been smaller scale attacks and people would be abducted or individuals would be attacked by people crossing over from the Colombian side. But, according to our people, this is the worst they have seen so far in terms of an attack on Panamanian territory, obviously from Colombia."

Mr. Janowski says it is not clear why the Colombian paramilitaries attacked the villages. But, he says, it may be because they are angry with the villagers for sheltering Colombian refugees.

Panama hosts more than 1,500 Colombian refugees, and many of them are found in the Darien region, which was attacked. Mr. Janowski says the displaced people reportedly have begun returning to their villages with the assistance of the police and military forces.

He says the Vicariato del Darien, a UNHCR partner agency, is helping to coordinate the emergency relief efforts, together with UNICEF and the Panamanian Red Cross.