SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – An international human rights court announced Wednesday that it has ordered Colombia to pay damages in the 1997 massacre of dozens of villagers by right-wing paramilitary fighters.
Human rights groups and former soldiers have criticized the Colombian army for not sending troops to the village of Mapiripan (search) to stop the bloodshed, in which the anti-rebel militias killed dozens of unarmed civilians they accused of being leftist guerrilla sympathizers.
In the ruling, issued last month but not released until Wednesday, the InterAmerican Human Rights (search) court ordered the government to pay $1 million in material damages and another $2.6 million in punitive damages to family members of 20 victims who have been identified.
The San Jose, Costa Rica-based court also ordered the government to construct a monument and identify the rest of the victims. A total of 49 people were believed slain.
Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos (search) told the Associated Press that his government "respects and accepts the ruling."
He said, however, that the amount of monetary damages Colombia was ordered to pay is "very high."
When the human rights court began deliberating the case in March, the Colombian government said that it accepted responsibility "for violating the rights of life," but said it does not accept blame for "violating legal protections and guarantees," referring mainly to its handling of the case after the massacre.
The gunmen descended on the town after flying into a nearby military airport and town officials in Mapiripan said soldiers ignored repeated telephone pleas for help during the killings.
Two local military commanders were convicted by Colombian courts for dereliction of duties regarding the massacre, though one of the convictions was thrown out by a higher court and is under review. Human rights groups say the military had full knowledge of the impending bloodbath.
The paramilitary group was created by wealthy cattle ranchers as a vigilante force to attack leftist guerrillas, who have been waging a lefist insurgency for decades.
In all, more than 3,000 people are killed in the fighting in Colombia each year, most of them civilians.