BOGOTA, Colombia – Clashes between rebels and right-wing paramilitaries in an isolated corner of northwest Colombia have killed as many as 60 people, many of them civilians caught in the cross fire, authorities said Friday.
Acting governor of Choco state David Mosquera told The Associated Press that the casualties occurred in recent days as the two sides battled for control of the region around the village of Bojaya in the northwest part of the state.
He said some of the civilians were killed when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, fired homemade mortars into a Bojaya church on Thursday.
He said that it wasn't immediately clear if FARC was aiming at the church, but rebels were firing at paramilitary positions in the area.
Rebels use cooking gas canisters packed with explosives as mortar rounds, which are not very accurate.
Mosquera said local hospital officials reported 60 dead and 90 injured in the clashes in the isolated zone. Colombia's national human rights ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, also said his staffer in the region had reported the same casualty figures.
However, the casualty figures couldn't be independently confirmed. There are no phones in the roadless region of Choco state, and radio communications were lost late Friday.
Colombia's civil war pits the FARC and a smaller rebel group against the illegal paramilitaries — fighting to rid the country of the leftist rebels — as well as government forces. Roughly 3,500 people — mostly civilians — are killed in the fighting every year.
The jungle-covered area around Bojaya village is reachable only via the Atrato River, and the rebels and paramilitaries were reportedly fighting for control of the artery. Rescue services hoped to fly to the region's airstrip but fighting prevented them from making the attempt.
Neither the army or national police maintain a permanent presence in the jungle-covered region. Security forces announced no immediate plans to head there to see what happened and to protect civilian noncombatants.
Cifuentes blamed the tragedy on the lack of government forces in the region.
Bojaya Mayor Ariel Palacios, who was visiting the city of Medellin on Friday trying to organize a rescue effort, told the AP he had spoken via radio with church officials in his town who also told him approximately 60 people had been killed.