By Hugh Bronstein
BOGOTA, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Colombia fired 10 army officers and three soldiers on Sunday in a widening scandal over the killing of innocent civilians that threatens to further complicate a U.S. trade deal bogged down over human rights.
The soldiers and officers are accused of shooting seven young men in the northern province of Cordoba and passing the bodies off as leftist guerrillas killed in combat.
"We have taken action. The cases are now in front of the attorney general’s office," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in a public address.
The government fired 27 army officers last month after a probe implicated them in the deaths of another group of young men who disappeared from their homes and were later shot, piled into mass graves and counted as combat deaths.
The widespread and systematic slaying of innocent civilians by Colombian security forces must be investigated by the government or else the international courts could intervene, the United Nations’ top rights official said this month.
Hundreds of such cases are pending as family members of the victims decry the killings, which they say were carried out by army and police personnel looking to artificially improve their combat records as the state pushes to defeat the rebels.
Washington has given billions of dollars in aid to the government of President Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed in a 1983 kidnap attempt by leftist rebels. He is hugely popular for his crackdown on the 44-year-old insurgency.
The results have attracted record foreign investment despite a series of scandals, including one in which scores of Congress members, mostly from Uribe’s coalition, are accused of using right-wing death squads to intimidate voters.
The cases have stiffened opposition in the U.S. Congress to a proposed trade deal. President-elect Barack Obama, set to take office in January, says he opposes the pact based on Colombia’s human rights record.
Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill want Uribe to do more to protect Colombian labor leaders from attacks by far-right paramilitaries before the trade deal is approved. (Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Sandra Maler)