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Posts tagged ‘Wild Land of Colombia’

Colombia: 193 dead after rivers overflow, toppling homes

April 02, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — An avalanche of water from three overflowing rivers tore through a small city in Colombia while people slept, destroying homes, sweeping away cars and killing at least 193 unsuspecting residents.

The incident triggered by a sudden, heavy rainstorm happened around midnight Friday and into early Saturday in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 tucked between mountains near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.

Muddy water quickly surged through the city’s streets, toppling homes, ripping trees from their roots and carrying a torrent of rocks and debris downstream. Many residents did not have enough time to flee.

According to the Red Cross, 202 people were injured and 220 believed missing. President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll will likely rise but warned against speculating about how many are dead. Late Saturday, he said the toll had reached 193.

“We don’t know how many there are going to be,” he said of the fatalities when he arrived at the disaster zone to oversee rescue efforts. “We’re still looking.” Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.

“There was no time for anything,” he said. Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighborhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

When he reached the site of his home Saturday, nothing his family left behind remained. “Thank God we have our lives,” he said. As rescuers assessed the full scope of the damage, many residents in Mocoa continued a desperate search for friends and relatives.

Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach his wife’s parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers. He decided it was too dangerous to try to reach them in the dark. So he called over and over by phone but got no answer.

Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house but found all the streets he usually takes missing. As he tried to orient himself he came across the body of a young woman dressed in a mini-skirt and black blouse.

He checked her pulse but could not find one. “There were bodies all over,” he said. When he finally reached the neighborhood where his in-laws live he found “just mud and rocks.” Rescue workers with the military oriented him toward the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.

“To know they were alive,” he said, “it was a reunion of tears.” Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis. Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital doesn’t have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.

Some of the hospital workers came to help even while there are own relatives remained missing. “Under the mud,” Granados said, “I am sure there are many more.” The Red Cross planned to set up a special unit in Mocoa Saturday afternoon to help relatives search for their loved ones.

“In this moment, it’s chaos,” said Oscar Forero, a spokesman with the Colombian Red Cross. “There are many people missing.” Rescuers suspended the search late Saturday night due to darkness but vowed to continue at first light Sunday.

Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.

The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive catastrophes. Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.

Colombia’s Santos accepts Nobel, urges shift in drug war

December 10, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday, saying it helped his country achieve the “impossible dream” of ending a half-century-long civil war.

A smiling Santos received his Nobel diploma and gold medal at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for his efforts to end a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and displaced 8 million. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is one less war in the world, and it is the war in Colombia,” the 65-year-old head of state said, referring to the historic peace deal this year with leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Santos used his acceptance speech to celebrate the end of the longest-running conflict in the Americas, pay tribute to its victims and call for a strategy shift in another, related war — on drug trafficking worldwide.

Just a few years ago, imagining the end of the bloodshed in Colombia “seemed an impossible dream, and for good reason,” Santos said, noting that very few Colombians could even remember their country at peace.

The initial peace deal was narrowly rejected by Colombian voters in a shock referendum result just days before the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in October. Many believed that ruled out Santos from winning this year’s prize, but the Norwegian Nobel Committee “saw things differently,” deputy chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said.

“The peace process was in danger of collapsing and needed all the international support it could get,” she said in her presentation speech. A revised deal was approved by Colombia’s Congress last week.

Several victims of the conflict attended the prize ceremony, including Ingrid Betancourt, who was held hostage by FARC for six years, and Leyner Palacios, who lost 32 relatives including his parents and three brothers in a FARC mortar attack.

“The FARC has asked for forgiveness for this atrocity, and Leyner, who is now a community leader, has forgiven them,” the president said. Palacios stood up to applause from the crowd. FARC leaders, who cannot travel because they face international arrest warrants by the U.S., were not in Oslo. A Spanish lawyer who served as a chief negotiator for FARC represented the rebel group at the ceremony.

Colombians have reacted to Santos’ prize with muted emotion amid deep divisions over the peace deal. The vast majority didn’t bother to vote in October’s referendum. For many Colombians in big cities, Santos’ overriding focus on ending a conflict that had been winding down for years has diverted attention from pressing economic concerns.

Santos’ speech made a reference to fellow Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, this year’s surprise winner of the literature award, by citing the lyrics of one of his most famous songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The president also used the Nobel podium to reiterate his call to “rethink” the war on drugs, “where Colombia has been the country that has paid the highest cost in deaths and sacrifices.”

Santos has argued that the decades-old U.S.-promoted war on drugs has produced enormous violence and environmental damage in nations that supply cocaine, and needs to be supplanted by a global focus on easing laws prohibiting consumption of illegal narcotics.

“It makes no sense to imprison a peasant who grows marijuana, when nowadays, for example, its cultivation and use are legal in eight states of the United States,” he said. The other Nobel Prizes were presented at a separate ceremony in Stockholm to the laureates in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. Dylan wasn’t there — he declined the invitation, citing other commitments.

The crowd still gave Dylan a standing ovation after a Swedish Academy member praised his work in a speech. An awkward moment ensued as American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, performing Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” forgot the lyrics midway through.

“I apologize. I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith said, asking the orchestra to start over, as the formally dressed audience comforted her with gentle applause. In a speech read by U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji at the Nobel banquet later Saturday, Dylan alluded to the debate about whether a songwriter deserved the Nobel Prize in literature.

Dylan said when William Shakespeare was working on “Hamlet,” he probably was thinking about which actors to pick and where he could find a skull. “I’m sure the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was: ‘Is this literature?'” Dylan said.

Like the Bard of Avon, Dylan said, he also deals with “mundane matters” such as whether he’s recording in the right key and not whether his songs are literature. However, he thanked the Swedish Academy for considering that question “and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”

__ Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Colombia’s congress ratifies peace accord with rebels

December 01, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — After five decades of war, more than four years of negotiations and two signing ceremonies, Colombia’s congress late Wednesday formally ratified a peace agreement allowing leftist rebels to enter politics.

The 310-page revised accord was approved unanimously by the lower house, which voted a day after the Senate approved the same text 75-0 following a protest walkout by the opposition led by former President Alvaro Uribe.

The accord introduces some 50 changes intended to assuage critics who led a campaign that saw Colombians narrowly reject the original accord in a referendum last month. President Juan Manuel Santos has said there won’t be a second referendum.

Revisions range from a prohibition on foreign magistrates judging alleged crimes by government troops or by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to a commitment from the rebels to forfeit assets, some amassed through drug trafficking, to help compensate their victims.

But the FARC wouldn’t go along with the opposition’s strongest demands — jail sentences for rebel leaders behind atrocities and stricter limits on their future participation in politics. “There needs to be a balance between peace and justice, but in this agreement there’s complete impunity,” Uribe, now a senator, said during Tuesday’s heated debate. Other senators accused him of standing in the way of a peace deal that he pursued with the FARC as president in 2002-10.

Santos says ratification will set in motion the start of a six-month process in which the FARC’s 8,000-plus guerrillas will concentrate in some 20 rural areas and turn over their weapons to United Nations monitors.

“Tomorrow a new era begins,” Santos said Wednesday, celebrating the Senate’s endorsement before the vote in the lower house. But the rebels insist that their troops won’t start demobilizing until lawmakers pass an amnesty law freeing some 2,000 rebels in jail.

“D-Day starts after the first actions are implemented,” the rebel leader “Pastor Alape,” a member of the FARC’s 10-member secretariat, told foreign journalists last week after the new accord was signed. “The president unfortunately has been demonstrating an attitude that creates confusion in the country.”

The debate over amnesty highlights one of the peace deal’s early challenges: the need for congress to pass legislation implementing the accord and setting up special peace tribunals. Santos was initially counting on swift approval of the needed changes that in some cases require constitutional amendments. But the referendum loss has left the status of his fast-track authority in doubt, awaiting a ruling by the constitutional court. Experts say a solid pro-peace coalition could crumble if implementation drags on and butts against the political maneuvering for the 2018 presidential election.

Beyond the legal hurdles, there is also concern FARC fighters will wind up joining criminal gangs rampant throughout the country or the much-smaller rebel National Liberation Army, which for months has been playing cat and mouse with the government over opening a peace process of its own. On Wednesday, both sides said they would delay until January any decision about when to start talks.

Combating security threats will test the state’s ability to make its presence felt in traditionally neglected rural areas at a time of financial stress triggered by low oil prices. There is also a risk that peace could trigger more bloodshed, as it did following a previous peace process with the FARC in the 1980s. At that time, thousands of former guerrillas, labor activists and communist militants were killed by right-wing militias, sometimes in collaboration with state agents.

Worries about new bloodshed, although less prevalent than in the darker days of Colombia’s half-century conflict, has become more urgent with more than a dozen human rights defenders and land activists in areas dominated by the FARC being killed by unknown assailants since the initial signing ceremony in September. So far this year, 70 have been killed, according to Bogota-based We Are Defenders, more than in all of 2015 and 2014.

Colombia government, rebels sign revised peace agreement

November 25, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a revised peace agreement with the country’s largest rebel movement on Thursday, making a second attempt within months to end a half century of hostilities.

Santos and Rodrigo Londono, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, signed the 310-page accord at Bogota’s historic Colon Theater — nearly two months after the original deal was surprisingly rejected in a referendum.

After signing with a pen crafted from the shell of an assault rifle bullet, they clasped hands to shouts of “Yes we could!” Thursday’s hastily organized ceremony was a far more modest and somber event than the one in September, in the colonial city of Cartagena, where the two men signed an accord in front of an audience of foreign leaders and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, all of whom were dressed in white to symbolize peace.

Santos looked and sounded tired after a two-month political roller coaster that saw him rise from the humiliating defeat to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. This time the deal will be sent directly to Congress without a public referendum.

He tried to inject a dose of optimism about the hobbled accord whose outlook for implementation is shrouded in uncertainty. “In 150 days — only 150 days — all of the FARC’s weapons will be in the hands of the United Nations,” he said during the only part of his speech that drew applause from the audience of a few hundred local politicians and officials.

FARC leader Londono used his address to call for a transitional government to ensure the accord is effectively implemented, a suggestion immediately denounced by the opposition as a veiled attempt to extend Santos’ tenure past elections in 2018, when he’ll be constitutionally banned from competing. The rebel leader also congratulated Donald Trump on his victory and called on the president-elect to continue strong U.S. support for Colombia on its path to peace.

“Our only weapons as Colombians should be our words,” said Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko, in a 15-minute speech. “We are putting a definitive end to war to confront in a civilized manner our contradictions.”

The new accord introduces some 50 changes intended to assuage critics led by still-powerful former President Alvaro Uribe. They range from a prohibition on foreign magistrates judging crimes by the FARC or government to a commitment from the insurgents to forfeit assets, some of them amassed through drug trafficking, to help compensate their victims.

But the FARC wouldn’t go along with the opposition’s strongest demands — jail sentences for rebel leaders who committed atrocities and stricter limits on their future participation in politics. Members of Uribe’s political party are threatening protests against what they consider a “blow to democracy.” They also are demanding another referendum, which they are confident they’ll win. Shortly after Thursday’s ceremony, Santos delivered the accord to congress, where a solid pro-peace majority is expected to ratify it in as early as next week.

“I ask public opinion to reflect on what this means for the future of the country,” Uribe said on the Senate floor Thursday, drawing attention to the fact that FARC leaders will be allowed to fill specially-reserved seats in congress before completing any sentences handed down by special peace tribunals.

The lack of broad support for the accord will make the already-steep challenge of implementing it even tougher. Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC for crimes such as kidnappings and drug-trafficking. Ensuring that the 8,000-plus fighters don’t wind up joining criminal gangs rampant throughout the country, or the much-smaller National Liberation Army, will also test the state’s ability to make its presence felt in traditionally neglected rural areas at a time of financial stress triggered by low oil prices.

There’s also a risk that peace could trigger more bloodshed, as it did following a previous peace process with the FARC in the 1980s when thousands of former guerrillas, labor activists and communist militants were gunned down by right-wing militias, sometimes in collaboration with state agents.

That fear, although less prevalent than in the darker days of Colombia’s half-century conflict, has become more urgent with more than a dozen human rights defenders and land activists in areas dominated by the FARC being killed by unknown assailants since the initial signing ceremony in September.

Santos this week held an emergency meeting with his Cabinet and U.N. officials to discuss the murders, taking an opportunity to reinforce his message that peace can’t wait. So far this year, 70 have been killed, according to Bogota-based We Are Defenders, more than in all of 2015 and 2014.

“We couldn’t delay implementation a single minute longer,” Santos said in his speech, alluding to the risk of a ceasefire falling apart if negotiations were allowed to stretch on. Once signed, Santos will introduce the accord to Congress, where a solid majority in support of peace is expected to ratify it as early as next week. Lawmakers will then embark on the nettlesome task of passing legislation so the guerrillas can begin concentrating in some 20-plus demobilization areas where they will begin turning over their weapons to United Nations-sponsored monitors.

With less fervor, Colombia takes another stab at peace

November 24, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — With less fervor and an added dose of uncertainty Colombia’s government on Thursday will sign another peace accord with the country’s largest rebel group — the second in two months.

The simple, hastily-organized ceremony in a Bogota theater reflects President Juan Manuel Santos’ greater sense of urgency to end hostilities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia after the original accord, brokered over four years of talks, suffered a shock defeat in a referendum a week after it was signed in front of heads of state and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Santos, winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, has tried to project a conciliatory image in the face of the humbling defeat at the polls. The new, 310-page accord introduces some 50 changes intended to assuage critics led by still-powerful former President Alvaro Uribe. They range from a prohibition on foreign magistrates judging FARC crimes to a commitment from the insurgents to forfeit assets, some of them amassed through drug trafficking, to help compensate their victims.

But the FARC wouldn’t go along with the opposition’s strongest demands — jail sentences for rebel leaders who committed atrocities and stricter limits on their future participation in politics. In an act of protest, members of Uribe’s political party are considering a boycott of next week’s scheduled debate in congress on ratifying the agreement, accusing the legislature of disobeying the constitution. They’re also threatening to call for street protests to denounce what they say is a “blow against democracy.”

“The government preferred to impose itself in a way that divides Colombians instead of a national pact that would bring us together,” Uribe’s Democratic Center party said in a statement Wednesday. The lack of broad support for the accord will make the already-steep challenge of implementing it even tougher.

Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC for crimes such as kidnappings and drug-trafficking. Ensuring that the 8,000-plus fighters don’t wind up joining criminal gangs rampant throughout the country, or the much-smaller National Liberation Army, will also test the state’s ability to make its presence felt in traditionally-neglected rural areas at a time of financial stress triggered by low oil prices.

There’s also a risk that peace could trigger more bloodshed, as it did following a previous peace process with the FARC in the 1980s when thousands of former guerrillas, labor activists and communist militants were gunned down by right-wing militias, sometimes in collaboration with state agents.

That fear, although less prevalent than in the darker days of Colombia’s half-century conflict, has become more urgent with more than a dozen human rights defenders and land activists in areas dominated by the FARC being killed by unknown assailants since the first signing ceremony in September.

Santos this week held an emergency meeting with his Cabinet and U.N. officials to discuss the murders, taking an opportunity to reinforce his message that peace can’t wait. So far this year, 70 have been killed, according to Bogota-based We Are Defenders, more than in all of 2015 and 2014.

“We have to take action. There’s no time to lose,” Santos said in a televised address announcing Thursday’s ceremony with less than 40 hours of anticipation. Once signed, Santos will introduce the accord to Congress, where a solid majority in support of peace is expected to ratify it as early as next week. Lawmakers will then embark on the nettlesome task of passing legislation so the guerrillas can begin concentrating in some 20-plus demobilization areas where they will begin turning over their weapons to United Nations-sponsored monitors.

Colombia tries again for peace with sides signing new accord

November 13, 2016

HAVANA (AP) — Colombia tried a second time to achieve peace, with its government and largest rebel group signing a revised deal to end its brutal conflict following the surprise rejection of an earlier peace accord by voters in a referendum.

Government negotiator Humberto de la Calle and rebel negotiator Ivan Marquez announced the new, modified deal Saturday in Havana, moving to end a half-century-long conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven almost 8 million people from their homes.

The latest agreement aims to address some of the concerns of opponents of the original accord, who said the deal was too lenient on a rebel group that had kidnapped and committed war crimes. “The new deal is an opportunity to clear up doubts, but above all to unite us,” said De la Calle, who described the text of the modified accord as “much better” than the previous one. The negotiator didn’t say if or how it would be submitted again to voters for approval or to congress.

President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia inked an initial peace deal on Sept. 26 amid international fanfare after more than four years of negotiations. But voters rejected it on Oct. 2 by just 55,000 votes, dealing a stunning setback to Santos who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end Colombia’s conflict.

Santos immediately began looking for ways to rescue the deal and the sides extended a cease-fire until Dec. 31 to get the modified deal done. The rebels insisted they wouldn’t go back to the drawing board and throw out years of arduous negotiations with the government.

“The meetings with the FARC delegation were intense,” said De la Calle. “We worked 15 days and nights to reach this new agreement.” De La Calle said some modifications made were related to justice, punishment for combatants accused of war crimes and reparations for the conflict’s victims. He said negotiators had worked out the details of how and where those responsible for crimes would serve their sentences, addressing complaints by opponents that rebels accused of atrocities would not be imprisoned but submitted to “alternative punishments.”

Other modifications include requiring the rebels to present an inventory of acquired money and holdings, and the provision of safeguards for private owners and property during reforms carried out in the countryside.

Cases of conflict participants accused of drug trafficking would be dealt with under Colombia’s penal code and be heard by high courts. In a televised address Saturday night, Santos said he had instructed De la Calle and the negotiating team to return to Bogota to explain the details of the new accord to the “no” campaign led by conservative former President Alvaro Uribe.

Santos said that an issue where negotiators did not achieve advances was on the insistence by opponents of the peace deal that guerrilla leaders not be allowed to run for elected office. “We won’t have assigned legislative seats. To the contrary, they will have to participate in elections. Nor will they have positions in government, as has occurred in other cases. But yes they can be elected,” he said.

FARC negotiator Marquez said “the implementation of the accord is all that remains for the construction of the bases for peace in Colombia.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Colombians, including Santos and those from the “no” campaign, for reaching the new peace deal.

“After 52 years of war, no peace agreement can satisfy everyone in every detail. But this agreement constitutes an important step forward on Colombia’s path to a just and durable peace. The United States, in coordination with the Government of Colombia, will continue to support full implementation of the final peace agreement,” he said in a statement.

Hours before the deal was announced, Uribe, who was Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, had asked that it “not be definitive” until opponents and victims of the conflict could review the text. Following a meeting with Santos, Uribe read a statement to reporters saying he had asked that the “texts to be announced from Havana” not be official until they had been reviewed.

Uribe and his supporters had demanded stiffer penalties for rebels who committed war crimes and criticized the promise of a political role for the FARC, a 7,000-strong peasant army that is Latin America’s last remaining major insurgency. They didn’t like that under the old deal guerrilla leaders involved in crimes against humanity would be spared jail time and allowed to enter political life.

Colombia’s ELN rebels hopes to free hostage next week

Bogota (AFP)

Nov 4, 2016

Colombian rebel group ELN said Friday it hopes to free hostage ex-congressman Odin Sanchez next week, clearing the way to begin peace talks with the government.

“We hope it will be in the coming week,” said Pablo Beltran, the chief peace negotiator for the National Liberation Army (ELN), in comments to Caracol Radio.

He said a “humanitarian commission” including international mediators, government and rebel negotiators, and representatives of the Catholic Church had been set up to oversee Sanchez’s release.

President Juan Manuel Santos’s government had been due to open peace talks with the ELN, Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, on October 27.

But he called them off when the rebels failed to release Sanchez, which he had set as a pre-condition.

Beltran said there had been “two differing interpretations” of the two sides’ deal on opening talks.

Potentially complicating matters further, some sources say the ELN is still holding at least two other hostages: a doctor named Edgar Torres and a businessman named Octavio Figueroa.

Beltran said the rebels had “very few” remaining hostages.

“They are so few that these cases will be resolved sooner rather than later,” he said.

Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, has faced a series of recent setbacks in his efforts to bring “total peace” to Colombia after a 52-year conflict.

Voters rejected a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in an October 2 referendum after opponents jeered it as too soft on the guerrillas.

And the talks with the ELN are on hold over the hostage issue.

Both the FARC and ELN have used ransom kidnappings and drug trafficking to finance themselves over the years.

Founded in 1964, they are the last two leftist guerrilla groups involved in a messy, multi-sided conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Colombias_ELN_rebels_hopes_to_free_hostage_next_week_999.html.

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