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Panamanians flee Colombian paramilitary attack, UN refugee agency says

Panamanians flee Colombian paramilitary attack, UN refugee agency says

The United Nations refugee agency today said that hundreds of indigenous people from Panama displaced by a brutal attack along the border by insurgents from Colombia have slowly begun to return to their homes.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that some 472 Kuna indigenous people, including 324 children, fled in search of protection to Boca de Cupe in the central Darien region of Panama this week after their villages were attacked by Colombian paramilitaries. “The displaced people reportedly began returning to their villages yesterday afternoon with the assistance of the police and military forces,” Kris Janowski said.

“The attack signals the growing impact of the Colombian conflict on Panama and other countries neighbouring Colombia,” Mr. Janowski added. In a letter to the Panamanian Government, UNHCR expressed its concern at these events and its solidarity with the affected population. According to reports from UNHCR’s partners in the area, four indigenous community leaders were reportedly killed during the attack last weekend and three foreign journalists were kidnapped.

The villages attacked are located in what is considered one of the world’s most inaccessible regions along the Paya and Pucuro Rivers, a few kilometres from the Colombian border. Mr. Janowski said that a UNHCR partner, Vicariato del Darien, is in Boca de Cupe helping coordinate the emergency relief efforts, together with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Panamanian Red Cross. UNHCR has also made its stock of basic emergency assistance kits available, and is contributing to improve the water system. The agency plans to dispatch an assessment mission to the area shortly.

According to UNHCR, Panama hosts 1,515 registered refugees and persons – the majority Colombian citizens – under a special humanitarian protection status, many of them in the Darien region.