The United Nations refugee agency is calling for an independent probe into the reported murders last week of 17 Awá indigenous people in a remote area of south-western Colombia that suffers from some of the worst violence and forced displacement in the country.
“We strongly urge all parties involved to respect international humanitarian law and ask the Colombian Government to fulfil its obligations to protect civilians and take special measures for the preservation of indigenous people,” Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told reporters in Geneva.
Initial reports by local officials say the murders, which include two women and a child, took place last week on Awá collective territory in the Colombian region of Nariño, a remote and difficult-to-access area located along the Telembi River between the villages of Ricaurte and Barbacoas.
“According to first reports, which are not yet possible to fully verify, the17 indigenous people were murdered in a retaliatory attack carried out by an irregular armed group against the civilian population following the arrival of the Colombian armed forces,” said Mr. Redmond.
“The rest of the population is now extremely frightened amid increasing concerns over a mass displacement of people in the days to come,” he added.
UNHCR, which said it is “shocked and saddened” at the reported killings, called for an urgent and independent inquiry into the incident.
The agency noted that more than 300,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2007 and preliminary 2008 figures show a similar trend, bringing the total number of registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) to more than 2.8 million.
The 21,000-strong Awá are one of 87 indigenous groups in the country and the largest one in Nariño, which has produced more than 10 per cent of all cases of new forced displacement in Colombia.