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Intensification of hostilities following breakdown of negotiations

01-03-2002 Operational Update No OP/REX 02/109Update No 08/2002

Executive summary - General situation - Humanitarian response - Red Cross movement coordination



  Executive summary    

Following the hijacking of an airplane with the subsequent kidnapping of Senator Gechen Turbay, Colombian President Pastrana announced the immediate withdrawal of the government from peace negotiations. Located in the provinces of Caquetá and Meta, the so-called " zona de despeje " , which had been ceded to the FARC three years ago to harbour peace negotiations, was terminated. In addition, arrest warrants for high-ranking members of the FARC were reactivated.

Concurrent with the campaign by the Colombian army to regain control over the zone were a number of operations carried out by FARC units in various regions of the country, including the hostage-taking of Ingrid Betancourt, Presidential candidate. As the intensification of hostilities affects not only the former "zona de despeje" , but also many other parts of Colombia, a general deterioration of the situation is anticipated.

On 28 February the government activated the Law of Security and National Defense in the six provinces bordering the former " zona de despeje " which were declared " teatro de operaciones " . The 19 municipalities in the provinces of Meta, Caquetá, Tolima, Cundinamarca, Huila and Guaviare will be under direct control of military authorities and subject to additional security measures.

At present, the ICRC does not anticipate movements of tens of thousands of civilians from the 42,000 square-kilometer zone towards neighbouring areas. However, it anticipates movements of civilians in search of safer areas within the former zone, mainly from rural areas towards the five towns. Some 120,000 persons are estimated to be living in the former zone.

Five ICRC teams have been deployed to the area in order to closely monitor the situation, as well as to build up stocks and to organize the distribution of humanitarian assistance should the need arise. By 27 February, a limited number of persons was assisted in San Vicente del Caguán, the former zone's main town. A few families were assisted by the delegations bordering the former zone in Villavicencio and Florencia. About 700 people have left the town of La Uribe towards rural areas.

In the rest of the country the intensification of the conflict continues to provoke increasing humanitarian needs; since the beginning of the year, the ICRC has assisted over 15,000 persons.


General situation 

Following the breakdown of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the main guerilla faction, the FARC-EP (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces-People's Army), a prolonged intensification of hostilities looms large.

Guerrilla groups, the Colombian army, and the paramilitary forces have been fighting over territorial control for nearly four decades. The three-and-a-half-year peace process between the government and the FARC-EP has suffered several setbacks in the past. From last October till January, the process was at a standstill. As the end-of-January expiration date for the " zona de despeje "   neared, a last-minute push from the international community relaunched the talks. The zone was then extended until 10 April, and the prospect of cease-fire arrangements due to start on 7 April. On the other side, military activities launched by the armed opposition groups continued unabated throughout January and culminated on 20 February when a commercial airplane was hijacked en route from Neiva to Bogotá. After a forced landing in the south of the country near the city of Neiva, Senator Gechen Turbay, the head of the Senate peace commission and member of an influential Colombian family, was kidnapped while the remaining 29 passengers and crew were set free.

That same evening, Colombia's President Pastrana declared the peace negotiations with the FARC-EP as well as the " zona de despeje " terminated and ordered the Colombian army to regain control over the demilitarised zone from midnight on. From 21 February, army planes began bombing some areas of the zone. Government ground troops arrived on 23 February at San Vicente del Caguán, the major municipality of the zone.

On 23 February, Ingrid Betancourt, candidate for the upcoming Presidential election, was taken hostage by the FARC, on her way to the former zone.

On 28 February the government activated the Law of Security and National Defense in the six provinces bordering the former " zona de despeje" which were declared " teatro de operaciones" . The 19 municipalities in the provinces of Meta, Caquetá, Tolima, Cundinamarca, Huila and Guaviare will be under direct control of military authorities and subject to additional security measures.

  Humanitarian response 

The ICRC has been present in Colombia since 1980. Presently the ICRC runs 17 offices throughout the country and carries out essential protection and assistance activities for the victims of the ongoing conflict. Some 53 delegates and 200 national employees contribute to the effort. Although the humanitarian consequences related to the latest developments are thus far limited, the ICRC is poised to deal with any needs that may arise from an intensification of the conflict at any part of the country.

On 21 February, the ICRC released an appeal calling on all parties to the Colombian conflict to respect international humanitarian law (IHL). Indeed, the ICRC is concerned that an escalation of the violence will have an even more pronounced impact on the security and humanitarian situation of the civilian population. Through its appeal, the ICRC reminded all parties of their obligations under IHL, and in particular: to refrain from indiscriminate attacks; to distinguish between the civilian population not taking part in the hostilities and combatants; and to distinguish between civilian installations and military objectives. People not participating directly in the hostilities, as well as those outside the conflict due to injury, detention or sickness, are to be treated with humanity and their lives spared. Protection is to extend also to medical personnel, establishments and transport.

From 22 February, the ICRC teams have ensured a permanent presence in the municipalities of San Vicente, Vista Hermosa, La Uribe, La Macarena and Mesetas. Apart from the usual contacts with local authorities and parties to the conflict, the ICRC has closely monitored the security conditions for the civilian population. The ICRC received the allegations of ten executions and presented the cases to the alleged perpetrators of these violations of IHL. In the former " zona de despeje " , reportedly the main fear among the civilian population is the arrival of the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC), particularly in the municipalities of Meta which have been the stronghold of the FARC-EP for the last years.

Together with volunteers of the Colombian Re d Cross Society (CRC), the ICRC teams organized two medical evacuations. On 22 February, five wounded civilians and three persons killed during the bombardments which had occurred the day before, were evacuated to the hospital of San Vicente. On 23 February, the ICRC medical personnel present in La Macarena organized the evacuation of a woman in need of surgery to the hospital of San Vicente.

By 27 February, ICRC teams had carried out surveys of the humanitarian and medical situation in the five municipalities of the zone. Food and non-food assistance was positioned in Mesetas for 800 people and in San Vicente for 1000 people. In San Vicente, the ICRC-CRC team provided food assistance for 172 internally displaced people who had arrived from rural areas. Three medical staff conducted a survey in the five hospitals which had received a donation in January, and were able to respond to eventual emergency needs.

In San Vicente, due to attacks on the electrical power supply system, access to water has become increasingly difficult; around 70% of the population is temporarily deprived of running water.

In order to obtain the necessary acceptance and security guarantees, all ICRC movements in the rural areas were duly notified to the Colombian armed forces, including the air force, as well as to the FARC. Several contacts took place between the ICRC teams and Colombian army officials, on the one side, and FARC local commanders, on the other.

Outside the former " zona de despeje " , in particular in the south of the country, the situation has become more tense in many areas. Attacks on electrical power plants, oil and gas pipelines, bridges and telecommunication installations have affected populations of several municipalities in the southern provinces of Caquetá, Meta, Huila and Putumayo, as well as in Arauca and Antioquia.

Meanwhile, continued fighting between the FARC-EP, the ELN (National Liberation Army), the Colombian Army and the AUC has provoked serious humanitarian consequences for the civilian population in many parts of the country. Since January, the ICRC has provided emergency assistance to over 15,000 people.


In accordance with the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international aid originating from the members of the International Movement is coordinated by the ICRC in consultation with the Colombian Red Cross (CRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

CRC volunteers are helping the ICRC teams present in San Vicente del Caguán to evaluate the humanitarian needs of the civilian population. The CRC volunteers also assist the ICRC medical personnel with medical evacuation of wounded civilians.

For further information, please contact the External Resources Division.

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