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Colombia Urged to Investigate Possible Army Involvement in Massacre - 2001-10-12

In Colombia, the country's top ombudsman called Thursday for an investigation into possible army involvement in the massacre Wednesday of 30 villagers this week. Right-wing paramilitary groups are believed to have killed more than 60 civilians in four separate massacres in the past three days. The government is now under pressure to investigate possible army collaboration in the largest of the killings.

The Colombian countryside was painted a gruesome red this week as right-wing paramilitaries perpetrated a new rash of massacres. In the largest killing, at least 30 people were lined up and shot Wednesday in the town of Buga, near the Pacific coast.

But the country's national ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes believes the paramilitaries are not the only ones to blame. He's demanding a government investigation into the possible involvement of a local army battalion in the killings. Mr. Cifuentes said this battalion must be investigated precisely because an atrocious massacre has been perpetrated right under their noses. Last week, a report by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch cited the same battalion as one of three army squads with close links to the paramilitaries. The report accused battalion leaders of maintaining constant radio communication with paramilitaries and of allowing them to use army vehicles.

The U.S. government has turned up the pressure on the Colombian army to cut its ties to the right-wing squads, particularly following Washington's decision to boost military aid to Colombia in the war against drugs. Since then, there have been more arrests of both paramilitary leaders and collaborating army officials, but analysts believe the arrests have only scraped the surface.

It's unclear why the paramilitaries launched this new wave of violence. But it does come on the heels of the government announcement last Sunday to keep in place the controversial demilitarized zone which is controlled by the left-wing guerrillas, the FARC, until next January. This will allow peace talks with the rebels to continue despite almost no recent progress. Critics accuse the rebels of using the zone to hold kidnap victims and process drugs.

But Thursday, President Pastrana warned the guerrillas the country is running out of patience. Mr. Pastrana said this is the moment when the FARC must demonstrate its desire for peace with concrete actions.

The FARC responded by announcing it would release three German social workers they kidnapped earlier this year. The release is expected to rekindle European support for the peace process, which has been frozen since the kidnappings.