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Colombia Urged to Respect Human Rights - 2002-09-24

As Colombian President Alvaro Uribe continues his official visit to the United States, the 38-year civil war rages on back home. Mr. Uribe has vowed to end the war and to eradicate the drug trade that supports insurgent groups. But, critics are demanding respect for human rights in areas of conflict.

Most Colombians back President Uribe's get-tough approach to the civil conflict. That is why they voted him into office last May and that is why even wealthy and middle-class citizens are voicing support for a special war tax that they are starting to pay this week. The tax amounts to about 1.2 percent of liquid assets and is expected to raise more than $800,000 in additional revenue for the armed forces.

But human rights activists are expressing concern that increased military action will adversely affect civilians living in zones of conflict. They are especially concerned about limits on civil liberties in two zones created under the state of emergency President Uribe declared last month and fully authorized this past weekend.

In the two zones military commanders have authority over all law enforcement personnel and may limit citizen movements. Foreigners need special permission to even enter the zones. Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces General Jorge Enrique Mora says his forces are being respectful of civilian rights.

He questions critics who he says were already complaining about abuses against human rights and the constitution in the zones before the military had even implemented the policy. He says the armed forces will operate in these areas under observation by human rights representatives and will respect civilian rights. It is expected that the government will create more such zones in the months ahead.

But critics also worry about the role of right-wing paramilitaries which have, at times, been in de facto alliance with the military in fighting left-wing guerrillas. These groups have been declared illegal, however, and President Uribe has denied that his government will turn a blind eye to their abuses.

Both the leftist rebels and the paramilitaries count on drug trafficking for a large part of their financial support. The Uribe government, with hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance, is fighting drug trafficking and spraying herbicides on fields of coca plants, from which cocaine is produced.

On Tuesday, the United States asked for the extradition of Carlos Castano, head of the largest paramilitary organization. The U.S. government has accused him of drug trafficking, a charge the flamboyant rightist commander has denied.

Human rights groups say Castano and others in the paramilitary ranks resort to extortion and murder in their battle against the two leftist insurgent groups, who also abuse civilian noncombatants. The leftist rebels have murdered thousands of civilians and are responsible for most of the 3,000 kidnappings that occur in Colombia each year. Last year more than 3,000 people died in Colombia's civil conflict.