Rescuers have evacuated more than a dozen wounded people from an isolated corner of Colombia after battles between rebels and rival paramilitaries killed 68 civilians, among them 38 children, authorities said.
Juan Gonzalo Lopez - health secretary for the government of Antioquia state, who is heading rescue efforts, yesterday said most of the 68 civilians were killed when homemade mortars slammed into a church in Bojaya - 235 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota. The village borders Antioquia state.
Authorities blamed the attack on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels were aiming at the church. Rebels use cooking gas canisters packed with explosives as mortar rounds, which are not accurate.
The battles began on Wednesday in Choco state when combatants squared off for control of lucrative drug-producing territory, General Leonel Gomez, commander of the army’s 1st Division, told reporters.
Dozens of people caught in the cross fire remained stranded in the region in northwest Colombia. Authorities said some of them were missing limbs, and rescuers were not expected to reach them until today at the earliest.
The bodies were brought to the nearby village of Vigia del Fuerte in Antioquia, said Gen Lopez. One of the victims was a one-year-old baby.
Witnesses told rescue workers that about 30 bodies were still scattered throughout the area, said Gen Lopez, who was in charge of the evacuation team. If the reports are true, the death toll could climb to 98.
Gen Gomez said it was too dangerous for soldiers to enter the area because of the presence of hundreds of rebel and paramilitary fighters.
‘‘They’ve staged ambushes over the access roads, which is why we’re approaching with precaution,’’ he said.
Two helicopters carrying 18 wounded - among them seven children between the ages of three and 10 - landed at an airport in Medellin yesterday afternoon. Some 70 family members gathered to see if their loved ones were on the helicopters.
Colombia’s national human rights ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, blamed the tragedy on the lack of government forces in the region. Neither the army nor national police maintain a permanent presence in the area, which has become a battleground for the rebels and the rival right-wing militia.
Colombia’s civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against the paramilitary United Self-defence Forces, or AUC, and government forces. Roughly 3,500 people - most of them civilians - are killed in fighting each year.
The jungle-covered area around Bojaya village is reachable only by air or the Atrato River, and the rebels and paramilitaries were reportedly fighting for control of the waterway.
The Red Cross on yesterday sent a separate rescue team to the region by boat. Rescue services hoped to fly to the region’s airstrip on Friday but fighting prevented them from making the attempt.