BOGOTA, Colombia – For the third time in a week Colombia's largest rebel movement has asked forgiveness from its victims during the country's decades-long conflict.
Leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia traveled Friday to the Gulf of Uraba region to meet with residents in the town of Apartado where a rebel unit in 1994 killed 35 people, including two children, during a street party. What came to be known as the massacre of La Chinita, for the poverty-stricken neighborhood where the killings took place, was one of the bloodiest of the era.
The apology, made during a ceremony also attended by government officials also attended, comes just two days before Colombians vote on whether to ratify a peace deal between the FARC and the government ending 52 years of hostilities. Polls show the referendum will pass by a wide margin but turnout is expected to be low, a sign of how many Colombians continue to distrust the rebels, who under the terms of the accord will be spared jail time if they confess their crimes.
The FARC are believed to have targeted Apartado because many demobilized fighters from a rival guerrilla army had abandoned the armed struggle and made a political toe-hold in the banana-growing region of northwest Colombia.
Residents of the neighborhood, many of them dressed in white shirts, said they welcome the FARC's act of contrition but want the rebels to follow up with acts of reparation and truth-telling about what led to the tragedy. In an effort to turn a page on the past, they're also proposing that the street where the killings took placed be renamed "Hope."
Images from the encounter broadcast on Caracol TV showed the rebel leader known as Pastor Alape carrying a white carnation in his hand symbolizing peace.
The ceremony follows FARC leader Ivan Marquez's donation Thursday of a Christ statue to a church in western Colombia destroyed in a 2002 bombing by the rebels that left dozens dead.
On Monday, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono apologized for the rebels' crimes during a peace signing ceremony with President Juan Manuel Santos.