Colombian troops kill 20 paramilitaries


Colombian government troops killed 20 right-wing paramilitary fighters yesterday in a gun battle in the country's northwestern mountains, the army said.

The combat took place days after President Alvaro Uribe took office on pledges to crack down on illegal armed groups fighting in Colombia's 38-year-old war.

The fighting occurred near the town of Segovia in Antioquia province, some 186 miles (300 km) north of the capital Bogota, said General Martin Orlando Carreno. The army also captured 17 right-wing paramilitaries, General Carreno said.

The paramilitaries are a 10,000-strong vigilante force that combats Marxist rebels and suspected civilian sympathizers.

Paramilitary commander and founder Carlos Castano last month announced that his United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia had disbanded as a national umbrella group because he no longer had control over all fighters. Since then, the group has broken into regional forces with no central command.

The paramilitaries were created by wealthy landowners and cattle ranchers but have grown rapidly in recent years.

Human rights organizations have accused the army of cooperating with paramilitaries as part of a dirty war against rebels. Rights activists fear Mr Uribe's hard-line anti-rebel stance will encourage paramilitaries to go on a rampage.

But the right-wing Mr Uribe has said he will fight paramilitaries with the same determination as rebels. Defense Minister Mr Marta Lucia Ramirez pledged yesterday that the military will "attack guerrillas and paramilitaries who are sowing terrorism in our country."