June 19, 2009 / 12:46 AM / 10 years ago

U.N. says Colombian army killed innocent civilians

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A U.N. investigator criticized Colombia on Thursday for not doing enough to punish soldiers who killed innocent civilians and made them look like enemy guerrilla casualties.

Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, speaks to the media during a news conference in Bogota June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

The case of 19 men and boys shot dead by soldiers last year and then passed off as rebels killed in combat is but the “tip of the iceberg”, U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston said.

Colombians were shocked by the slayings by troops seeking promotions and bonuses offered by an army under increasing pressure to crush the country’s 45-year-old leftist insurgency. The 19 were from the impoverished Bogota suburb of Soacha.

When revelations of the crimes surfaced in the local media, the first reaction of many military officials was to place the blame on a few errant soldiers and commanders.

But the U.N. official, concluding a 10-day fact-finding mission, said such cases marked “a more or less systematic” practice by “significant elements within the military.”

Alston said the practice was never an official state policy and the defense ministry has acted to end such killings, but efforts to bring the guilty to justice have been slow.

Civilians have been cut down by rogue soldiers around the country in what Alston called the “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.”

Rights groups put the number of victims in the hundreds.

In Soacha, recruiters lured their victims with promises of lucrative jobs. Instead they were slain, then dressed as rebel fighters and photographed holding weapons.

“Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots four sizes too big for them, or left-handers holding guns in their right hands, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, undermines the suggestion that these were guerrillas killed in combat,” Alston said.

The government, which invited the fact-finding mission and cooperated with the inquiry, has taken “important steps to stop and respond to these killings,” Alston said. “But the number of successful prosecutions remains very low,” he added.

The army is revamping its rules of engagement in a bid to avoid abuses. It has also assigned military human rights lawyers to advise officers in the field, Deputy Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo told Reuters.

“There have been major changes,” Jaramillo said.

President Alvaro Uribe, first elected in 2002, has used billions of dollars in U.S. aid to intensify Colombia’s fight against cocaine-funded FARC guerrillas, making wide areas of the country safer.

But critics have denounced the Colombian army’s “body count mentality” in which advancement through the ranks can depend on delivering enemy corpses.

“All forms of incentives to members of the military for killing should be removed,” Alston said.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, editing by Anthony Boadle

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