BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s top army commander resigned Tuesday after the U.S.-backed military was rocked by charges soldiers killed civilians to present them as combat deaths and inflate their successes in a war against rebels.
The scandal broke at a sensitive time for President Alvaro Uribe, a Washington ally whose multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package and proposed U.S. trade pact likely will come under tougher scrutiny whoever wins the race for the White House.
The top commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, stepped down on Tuesday, days after Uribe purged 27 officers and soldiers from his army and the United Nations urged Colombia to stop security forces from killing civilians to bolster the guerrilla body count in a waning four-decade-old war against insurgents.
“I have spent 39 years in the service of my country and today I can say that journey has come to an end,” Montoya told reporters, telling Colombians to wait for results of the investigations before judging soldiers in the killings.
Montoya had been the spearhead of recent strikes against the FARC rebel force, which is at its weakest in decades after the deaths of three commanders this year and the rescue of a group of high-profile hostages, including three Americans.
Uribe announced the recent military purge after a probe linked soldiers to the deaths of at least 11 young men who disappeared from a poor neighborhood near Bogota and whose bodies were later found in mass graves hundreds of miles away.
Their families say they were offered work by a group of men, but the armed forces initially reported them as armed fighters killed in combat. As many as 19 bodies were found in the graves near the border with Venezuela.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay Saturday called executions of civilians by soldiers “widespread and systematic” and urged Colombia to carry out more investigations.
The attorney general is investigating the case of the 11 men, but no one has been charged. Uribe has suggested troops could have collaborated with criminal gangs to kill civilians and claim rewards paid to informants who give tips on rebels.
“This was an inevitable consequence,” Carlos Gaviria, Democratic Pole opposition party leader said. “Gen. Montoya is not the only one who will have to resign.”
But Uribe Tuesday defended Montoya, calling him one of the country’s best generals. He named Gen. Oscar Gonzalez to replace him as army commander.
“We need efficacy, transparency and efficiency,” he said.
A former paramilitary boss this year accused Montoya of arming death squads and the Los Angeles Times cited CIA reports in 2007 saying he collaborated with paramilitary commanders to wipe out rebels. The government dismissed those charges.
Uribe’s tough response to the killing of the 11 missing men could help him argue his government is taking rights violations more seriously than any previous government. But the case could fuel opposition in the United States to the contested free trade agreement.
U.S. Democrats have called for Uribe to do more to protect labor union leaders before any trade deal. And some Democrats have already pushed for a reduction in the military portion of Colombia’s aid package -- the largest outside the Middle East.
“The horror of this particular case... is so great that it may have an effect on some members of Congress when the time comes again to open the checkbook for more Colombian military aid,” said Adam Isacson, who analyzes U.S. ties with Colombia for Washington’s Center for International Policy.
Uribe is hugely popular for his crackdown on guerrillas and outlawed paramilitaries. Violence in cities and on highways has fallen as the rebels from Latin America’s oldest-surviving insurgency are driven back into remote jungles and mountains.
But thousands of civilians are displaced each year by conflict in rural areas where government presence is weak and rights groups say executions are on the rise as the armed forces come under pressure to show results in combat.
Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota, Editing by Cynthia Osterman
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