World News

U.N. calls on Paraguay to investigate deaths of 11-year-olds in military operation

ASUNCION/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - The Paraguayan government must investigate “impartially and without delay” the deaths of two 11-year-old girls in a police and military operation against a rebel group in the north of the country, the regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said on Sunday.

The Paraguayan government initially said the two girls were teenagers and labeled them as “rebels” who were killed during a military operation targeting members of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) in the Yby Yaú area, about 370 kilometers to the north of capital Asuncion.

The EPP, a small armed group modeled after Colombian rebels and active in marijuana-growing regions in the north, has been accused of kidnappings and attacks in Paraguay for over a decade. The government has been carrying out raids on the group.

On Friday evening, following a request from Paraguay, Argentina said it had consulted its national registry and established that the deceased were both 11 years of age and Argentine citizens.

Its claim was backed by a Paraguayan forensic specialist who local media said examined the bodies, which were buried and then exhumed for the fresh inspection. He told reporters that his tests confirmed their age as 11.

In a statement issued on Sunday, a pro-bono group called the Argentine Lawyers’ Guild identified the girls as Lilian Villalba and Maria del Carmen Villalba, and said they were both nieces of Carmen Villalba, a known EPP member who is in jailed in Paraguay over her involvement in attacks, including one in which a policeman died.

The group said the girls’ parents were also EPP members and they had been in the area visiting family members.

“Regardless of being the children of Paraguayan peasants and EPP militants, the girls were civilians and were also Argentines, who were not part of the fierce class struggle that is being waged in Paraguay,” it said in a statement.

“This is a very serious incident that ended the lives of two girls whom the state ought to have protected as part of its obligation to guarantee human rights,” said Jan Jarab, OHCHR’s South America representative, in a statement.

In response to the UN statement, Paraguay´s Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed its “deep regret” for the girl’s deaths and said an investigation was already underway, which would be conducted by “impartial and independent” authorities.

Reporting by Daniela Desantis and Maximillian Health; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Aurora Ellis