More than 3,000 people have been displaced in western Colombia amid fighting between left-wing ELN rebels, their neo-paramilitary rivals “Los Urabeños” and the army, according to authorities.
The Ombudsman’s Office and the United Nations reported that the people mainly of indigenous and of African descent were forced to leave their homes in the Choco province following the recent outbreak of hostilities between the two rival groups.
“There were more than 3,000 people displaced by the recent impact of armed conflict,” reported the Ombudsman from the rural coastal area of San Juan, located in the jungle in the troubled western province.
While many of the displaced were reported to have returned home as combat passed, an estimated 500 remain stranded away from their homes as a result of the violence.
The Urabeños, who call themselves the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AGC) have become increasingly active engaging in widespread attacks across the country over the past few months.
The group, which owes its origins to the now-defunct AUC who were demobilized in 2006, has been calling to be included in peace talks that are currently being held with leftist rebel groups FARC and are set to start with the ELN in May.
This recent wave of violence has led to clashes with arch rivals the FARC in Northern Colombia and the ELN in the Choco province in the west.
For the first time since the demobilization of the AUC, which worked hand in hand with the military to eradicate leftist guerrillas and those considered guerrilla supporters, the Urabeños have recently been joined by the army in their attempt to remove the leftist rebels from the Pacific region, an ELN stronghold.
The intensity of the violence has created a humanitarian crisis forcing locals to flee their lands amid fears for their safety.
“In the affected area, they found that in total there were 3,058 displaced persons, equivalent to 725 families in 12 communities. In addition, another 1,133 inhabitants of six indigenous settlements in the region are ‘confined’ in their lands for fear of clashes” reported the UNHCR and the Ombudsman following a recent joint visit to the area.
Colombia’s government are currently in the final stages of peace talks with the nations largest left-wing guerrilla group the FARC and are due to commence formal negotiations with the ELN rebels in May.
The escalation of the violence by neo-paramilitaries such as the Urabeños has imposed an increasing threat to destabilize both processes.
While the Urabeños have become a significant player in the violent political spectrum of the South American country, President Juan Manuel Santos continues to refuse to acknowledge them as anything more than “criminal bands.”
This in spite the fact that paramilitary successor groups have become the main human rights violators in the country and are accused of having assassinated hundreds of human rights workers and unionists.
However, the FARC, the ELN and the Urabeños alike demand the government acknowledge the Urabeños as a paramilitary group, and effectively dismantle the organization and reintegrate its fighters.