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Colombia: Thousands caught up in Nariño and Chocó fighting

Briefing notes

Colombia: Thousands caught up in Nariño and Chocó fighting

18 July 2006

Thousands of civilians are caught up in fighting and violence in two of Colombia's Pacific Coast departments - Nariño to the south near the border with Ecuador and Chocó to the north near the Panama border. While hundreds of families have left their homes, indigenous communities in both departments are trapped on their territory and unable to flee to safety.

In Nariño, more than 1,300 people have fled since fighting started a week ago between the Colombian army and an irregular armed group around the municipality of Barbacoas. A UNHCR team in the area says it is likely that there are unreported cases of displacement from remote locations. With combat ongoing, thousands more people could be at risk of forced displacement in the next few days.

UNHCR is very concerned for a group of 92 Awá indigenous people caught up in the fighting and unable to flee the village of Cumbas. The group, including pregnant women and elderly people, are gathered inside the local school. For the first time in days, some food reached Cumbas on Monday but not in sufficient quantity to feed everyone. UNHCR, along with other humanitarian and human rights organisations, is calling on the government for urgent humanitarian aid and safe passage for the group.

The UNHCR team on the ground says the majority of the displaced are now in the villages of Altaquer and Ricaurte, located between the provincial capital of Pasto and the Pacific Coast. In Ricaurte alone, there are now close to 1,000 people, most of them indigenous. Local authorities and the church are providing material assistance, including food and medical attention. UNHCR is asking the departmental and national authorities to help with the humanitarian crisis and to guarantee the rights of the civilian population in the area.

Further to the north along Colombia's Pacific Coast, the department of Chocó has also seen a marked increase in violence over the past week. Fighting between irregular armed groups has left several indigenous communities along the Truando River cut off from each other and the rest of the world. UNHCR is particularly concerned about the fate of 137 Embera indigenous people, whose community has been blockaded since last week.

The security situation and the remoteness of the area, which is accessible only by small boat, make information extremely difficult to come by and verify. There are worrying reports that several civilians have been killed in the past few days. Most of them appear to have been working in plantations along the Truando River.

UNHCR is on the alert for massive displacement from the area. Our local office in Apartadó has already received reports of forced displacement around Unguía, also on the Truando River, and is sending a mission today (Tuesday) to the area. UNHCR offices in Panama and Ecuador are monitoring the borders for possible crossing of refugees from Chocó in the north Nariño in the south.

There are more than 2.5 million internally displaced people in Colombia and UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of the conflict on Colombia's indigenous communities, warning that some smaller groups may face extinction as a result of widespread displacement from their ancestral lands.