Violence in Colombia traps scores of civilians, UN refugee agency says

18 July 2006

The United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern about the fate of thousands of civilians are caught up in fighting and violence in two of Colombia's Pacific Coast departments, including scores who are trapped and unable to flee to safety.

The fighting is taking place in Nariño to the south near the border with Ecuador and Choco to the north near the Panama border. “While hundreds of families have left their homes, indigenous communities in both departments are trapped on their territory and unable to flee to safety,” Jennifer Pagonis, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

In Nariño, more than 1,300 people have fled since fighting started a week ago between the Colombian army and an irregular armed group around the municipality of Barbacoas, according to UNHCR, which has a team in the area that estimates more cases of displacement from remote locations.

“With combat ongoing, thousands more people could be at risk of forced displacement in the next few days,” Ms. Pagonis warned. She voiced particular concern about a group of 92 Awa indigenous people caught up in the fighting and unable to flee the village of Cumbas. The group, including pregnant women and elderly people, are gathered inside the local school.

“For the first time in days, some food reached Cumbas on Monday but not in sufficient quantity to feed everyone,” she said. UNHCR, along with other humanitarian and human rights organizations, is calling on the government for urgent humanitarian aid and safe passage for the group.

Further to the north along Colombia's Pacific Coast, the department of Choco has also seen a marked increase in violence over the past week. Fighting between irregular armed groups has left several indigenous communities along the Truando River cut off from each other and the rest of the world. “UNHCR is particularly concerned about the fate of 137 Embera indigenous people, whose community has been blockaded since last week,” the spokesperson said.

“UNHCR is on the alert for massive displacement from the area.”

There are more than 2.5 million internally displaced people in Colombia and UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of the conflict on Colombia's indigenous communities, warning that some smaller groups may face extinction as a result of widespread displacement from their ancestral lands.


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