Death squads exploit quake

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AS THE world's attention is focused on the Colombian earthquake, the country's paramilitary death squads have taken advantage of the distraction provided by the catastrophe to step up their activities.

Fears are growing for the safety of four Colombian human rights workers abducted by a paramilitary group on Thursday in the city of Medellin, known as the centre of the country's drugs trade.

Three hooded gunmen and one woman entered the offices of the highly respected Institute for Popular Training, a human rights organisation. As six other gunmen guarded the building, the group demanded to see the institute's director, Jhon Jairo Bedoya, who was then taken away, along with two women and one male member of his staff.

The gunmen promised the four would be returned within five hours, but nothing has been heard of them since. Colombia's public prosecutor has confirmed that the gunmen were members of the AUC, a loose national association of paramilitary groups. The paramilitary death squads are believed to be financed by Colombia's drugs traffickers and to operate with the consent of the Colombian army.

They say they have a mission to combat Colombia's left-wing guerrillas, but they are accused by human rights groups of conducting a campaign of terror against the civilian population that has driven hundreds of thousands of Colombians from their homes in the past five years. The paramilitary groups are widely feared for their barbarous methods - the chainsaw is a favoured means of dispatching their victims.

Since early January, paramilitary groups have conducted a series of massacres in which up to 200 people have been murdered. In one recent incident, 27 churchgoers, including several children, were dragged out of a baptismal service in Playon de Orozco in Magdalena province and gunned down. In San Pablo, in Bolivar, 15 people were shot after being dragged from their homes. The massacres appear to be in revenge for a guerrilla attack on the paramilitary headquarters on 27 December, when 30 people died.

Last week's abduction is a major embarrassment for Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, who has been trying to open peace talks with the main guerrilla armies in Colombia, but who has been widely criticised for failing to curb the death squad activities. The main guerrilla army, the FARC, has demanded the dismantling of the paramilitary groups as a condition of any peace negotiations and they accuse the Colombian army of supporting paramilitary activities.