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UN Refugee Agency Concerned About Colombia's Civilians - 2002-01-11

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, says it is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating situation in Colombia and its impact on innocent civilians.

The UN Refugee Agency says nearly 40 years of civil war in Colombia has uprooted well over one million people. In addition, the agency says thousands of others have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries and further abroad.

UNHCR spokesman, Kris Janowski, says the agency is concerned about the possible effect the latest impasse in the peace talks might have on the civilian population. "We are not in a position to judge the government's decisions either way. We are just concerned about the fate of the peace process. And, the peace process involves everyone not just the government. And, we are concerned that a breakdown of the peace process could lead to more suffering to Colombia's civilian population," he said.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has threatened to break off peace talks with the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, unless it agrees to serious negotiations.

Mr. Janowski says efforts to end Colombia's long-standing conflict received another setback with the recent murder of two leading peace activists. "We are particularly outraged by the murders in late December of two community leaders of the so-called Peace Communities of the Atrato River," he said. "The two people, Petrona Sanchez and Edwin Ortega, were both dedicated to serving their community and played a very positive role in their community. The murder of these two is a blow to the peace effort in that area and perhaps with wider implications."

The Peace Communities were established in the late 1990's for thousands of displaced people from the Uraba area in northern Colombia. The goal of these communities is to allow for the peaceful return of displaced people to their places of origin.

Mr. Janowski says the UNHCR hopes the Colombian government will thoroughly investigate the murders of the two men and bring the perpetrators to justice.