Dozens of Colombian Indians greeted President Juan Manuel Santos with boos Wednesday in the southwestern province of Cauca and demanded he withdraw security forces from that violence-wracked region, which has been battered since last week by guerrilla attacks and army bombardments.
A preliminary casualty count indicated one boy was killed and 15 people were wounded in the incidents, which prompted Santos to hold a Cabinet meeting Wednesday in Toribio.
“We don’t want any more army or guerrillas here,” indigenous leader Carlos Andres Alfonso told Efe from the town, one of the hardest hit by fighting in that region.
The president arrived in Toribio even as a large-scale operation involving military helicopters, including airstrikes, was being carried out against Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, positions.
Santos held a closed-door meeting with his ministers to analyze the situation in the region, whose population is mostly indigenous.
Alfonso told Efe that two organizations representing Indians in Cauca, Acin and Cric, had planned to make their demands to Santos in a meeting but their request for a face-to-face was denied.
The government instead offered to maintain contacts via mid-level officials but the Indians refused, the Acin council member said.
Alfonso said that under Colombia’s constitution indigenous people are autonomous and have the right to exercise control over their territories.
“We have full legitimacy to exercise territorial control,” said Alfonso, who vowed that the Indigenous Guard will continue to dismantle military and police posts and encampments and destroy barricades.
That process began in recent days when the Indians started taking apart security force posts in Toribio and said they would enter the jungles and destroy FARC camps.
“We’ll continue asserting territorial control without asking anyone’s permission,” Alfonso said, adding that the Indians’ goal is “to live in peace and be an example of coexistence.”
Military officials said last Saturday that civilians, mostly Nasa and Paez Indians, were forced from their homes last weekend in Toribio after FARC guerrillas hid in the fields around the town and attacked officers, using snipers positioned in abandoned houses to pin down police.
Toribio Mayor Ezequiel Vitonas told Efe by telephone that same day that the FARC attacked Toribio 10 times during the first six months of this year.
Four people were killed last year in the town - one of several in Cauca frequently assaulted by the FARC - when the rebels detonated a truck packed with explosives.
The Colombian government has made fighting the FARC a top priority and has obtained billions in U.S. aid for counterinsurgency operations.
The FARC guerrilla group, which has fought a decades-old armed struggle against a succession of Colombian governments, is on both the U.S. and EU lists of terrorist groups.
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