Colombians demand an end to murder

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The Independent Online
CHURCH BELLS around the nation sounded simultaneously yesterday as Colombians, sickened by the latest series of politically-motivated assassinations and massacres, marched for peace.

In Bogota, residents on foot or in cars, many wearing white or waving white handkerchiefs, stopped in the streets for three minutes of silence "in the hope that the guns, too, fall silent." Radio stations went off the air for the same period. Thousands of residents formed human chains, holding hands along main avenues before gathering in the central Bolivar square.

Carrying placards saying "We want peace," children marched in the worst areas of violence - the north-western Uraba region and south-eastern Meta province - where Marxist guerrillas or right-wing para-military groups control much of the countryside and the Colombian army has little control.

In the northern town of Barrancabermeja, residents marched after burying a dozen victims of the latest massacre, apparently carried out by a paramilitary group on Saturday night. They carried placards calling on the authorities to trace 43 people, mostly young men, taken away by the gunmen in lorries and whom many fear may be already dead.

With eerie echoes of the former Yugoslavia, the gunmen spoke of "fumigating" and limpieza (cleansing), referring to their claims that their victims were members or sympathisers of the Marxist guerrillas.

With presidential elections less than two weeks ago, Colombia has been shaken by a series of assassinations, of human rights workers and a former defence minister, and the string of massacres blamed mainly on right-wing paramilitary groups. Many Colombians fear the election on 31 Mayis under threat, with the recent violence the worst since the 1989-90 pre-election period, in which three presidential candidates, were killed.

Human Rights activists believe the army supports the paramilitary groups and uses them as a front in a "dirty war" by killing guerrilla sympathisers or their families.