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Panama: villagers flee Colombian paramilitary attack

Briefing notes

Panama: villagers flee Colombian paramilitary attack

23 January 2003

According to reports from UNHCR's partners in the area, 472 Panamanian indigenous people, including 324 children, fled in search of protection to Boca de Cupe in the Central Darién region of Panama this week after their villages were attacked by Colombian paramilitaries. The displaced people reportedly began returning to their villages yesterday afternoon with the assistance of the police and military forces. Four indigenous community leaders were reportedly killed during the attack last weekend. Three foreign journalists were also kidnapped. The villages attacked are inhabited by indigenous Kuna people and are located along the Paya and Pucuro rivers, a few kilometres from the Colombian border in what is considered one of the world's most inaccessible regions.

The attack signals the growing impact of the Colombian conflict on Panama and other countries neighbouring Colombia. In a letter to the Panamanian government, UNHCR expressed its concern at these events and its solidarity with the affected population. A UNHCR implementing partner, the Vicariato del Darién, is present in Boca de Cupe and is helping coordinate the emergency relief efforts, together with UNICEF and the Panamanian Red Cross. UNHCR is contributing to improve the water system in Boca de Cupe in order to respond to increased needs and made its stock of basic emergency assistance kits available. An assessment mission by UNHCR staff to the area is expected to take place in the next few days.

Panama hosts 1,515 registered refugees and persons under a special humanitarian protection status, many of them in the Darién region. The majority of them are Colombian citizens.