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Colombia's government must protect communities to stop activist killings: report

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s government must prioritize communities’ safety over military operations against armed groups to stop killings of activists, while ensuring perpetrators face legal punishment, advocacy organization International Crisis Group said in a report on Tuesday.

At least 415 human rights and community activists - widely known in Colombia as social leaders - have been killed since January 2016, according to government figures cited in the report. Some human rights groups put the figure much higher.

President Ivan Duque’s government has focused on destroying coca crops and weakening armed groups in a bid to protect activists, but military operations can provoke retaliation against communities, according to Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization focused on conflict resolution.

The government must implement rural reforms to offer viable alternatives to illegal activities such as coca growing and should widen demobilization programs, the report said.

“Without abandoning the goal of dismantling armed groups, Colombia should offer their members realistic pathways back into civilian life through negotiated collective demobilization,” the report said.

A ministry of defense spokesperson reiterated the government’s view that violence will not be stopped by military and police presence alone, but by establishing rule of law.

The government accuses left-wing guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, ex-members of the FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal and criminal groups, some comprised of former right-wing paramilitaries, of attacking activists as they seek control of drug trafficking and illegal mining areas.

The attacks have drawn condemnation from advocacy groups and the international community.

Some 60% of the killings have occurred in municipalities earmarked under the 2016 peace agreement for special development programs, the report found.

The areas generally have high levels of poverty and are locations where multiple armed groups are jostling for control.

“In this sense, violence is a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the past,” the report said.

Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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