February 17, 2009 / 3:24 PM / in 9 years

FARC rebels say kill eight Colombian Indians

BOGOTA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - FARC rebels said on Tuesday they executed eight Colombian Indians for passing intelligence to the army, confirming killings that have driven a wave of Awa indigenous people from their remote jungle homes.

The Colombian army, which has been pummeling the guerrillas in the past few years, denied the villagers were spying on the FARC and condemned the group for murders it said would further erode its credibility.

Dozens of Awa villagers fled their homes following reports that as many as 27 people were killed this month by the leftist rebels, who are fighting a four-decade-old insurgency against the state.

The FARC took responsibility for eight deaths near the border with Ecuador.

"All eight men admitted they had been working with the army for two years in this," the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said in a statement posted on a website regularly used by the rebels, anncol.eu/.

"As a result of the military operations, their responsibility in the deaths of numerous guerrillas and their undeniable active involvement in the conflict, they were executed," the statement said.

Officials have only found one body in the remote southwestern region where the killings took place.

Colombia's 21,000-person Awa community has been caught in the cross-fire of crime gangs battling Marxist guerrilla groups for cocaine-producing land in Narino province, which lies on a key route for shipping drugs to the United States and Mexico.

The United Nations refugee agency says the Awas -- one of many Indian tribes caught up in Colombia's fighting -- suffer persistent human rights abuses as a result of the conflict, forcing some to seek refuge in neighboring Ecuador.

Awa means "people" in the community's language.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said the executions showed the FARC were "completely without scruples."

"This is a hideous crime, worthy of universal condemnation, and it means the FARC will keep on losing political credibility," he told local radio.

The FARC has suffered a series of military setbacks in the past year and a U.S.-backed military drive has pushed the rebels further into the mountains and jungles.

Army chief Gen. Freddy Padilla denied the army had been paying Awa informants.

According to the U.N. agency, Colombia's violence has pushed more than a third of Colombia's 87 indigenous tribes to the brink of disappearance. (Reporting by Helen Popper and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Saul Hudson)

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