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ICRC Says Everyone Touched by Conflict in Colombia

A senior official from the International Committee of the Red Cross who has just returned from a mission to Colombia says every person in that country has been affected by the violence that has been going on there for more than four decades.

Red Cross director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuhl paints a chilling picture of life in Colombia. He says civilians live in fear of violence, extortion, kidnappings, killings and forced displacement. He says people live with these fears every day of their lives.

The 40-year conflict in Colombia between government forces, and anti-government insurgent groups and illegal paramilitary groups - both heavily involved in the drug trade - escalated during the 1990s. Several thousand paramilitary members have laid down their arms since 2002, but other insurgents continue attacks against civilians and large swaths of Colombia's countryside are under guerrilla influence.

Kraehenbuhl says Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons in the world. Official statistics put that figure at 1.8 million. But the Red Cross official says other sources say it is even higher.

"We are equally worried about the fate of an important number of hostages in the country in the situation of displacement and of soldiers and members of the armed forces deprived of their liberty as a result of the conflict," he added. "There is another issue which is of serious concern to us and that is the situation of persons missing as a result of the conflict. And, of course the suffering of their family members. Finally, there is the impact for the populations of violence and the regular occurrence of armed confrontations carried out in the regions in which they live."

Kraehenbuhl says the Red Cross believes it is essential that the issue of missing persons be included on the political agenda of any negotiations that take place between the warring factions.

"It is an issue that we know from experience in other contexts that tends to be somewhat sidelined or put aside because it is a very delicate issue in any context," he continued. "But we have insisted here again that it is not an issue that is going to go away and that the better one addresses it at an early phase, the better it is. We are dealing ourselves, as ICRC, with 3,600 individually documented cases based on testimony from families. And these are cases that we will continue to put forward in our discussions with the different parties."

Kraehenbuhl says hundreds of people have been kidnapped and are held hostage for a variety of reasons. Some are political, others are held for ransom, and some of these are never heard of again.

He says an unknown number of police or members of the armed forces are being held by opposition groups, some for years. While the Red Cross has no access to them, he says that last year Red Cross workers visited more than 6,000 prisoners held by the government