Ex-FARC commanders accept Colombia war crimes accusations

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Former commanders from Colombia’s demobilized FARC guerrillas on Thursday accepted accusations by a transitional justice court that they committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the group’s 50-year war with the state.

The ruling in January by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created under the 2016 peace deal between the government and the rebels, was the first time the JEP attributed criminal responsibility for hostage-taking to former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The former commanders were also accused of other war crimes connected with the treatment of kidnap victims, including murder and torture, among others.

“We recognize that during (the conflict) actions and conduct punishable in the eyes of international humanitarian law took place. Actions and conducts that have been individually and collectively recognized by the JEP, society in general, and in activities with victims,” a statement signed by six of the former rebel commanders and published on Twitter said.

The FARC used kidnappings for ransom to fund their war, while captured military or government personnel were used to pressure authorities into releasing jailed rebels, the JEP said last month.

By accepting the accusations, the former commanders could face restrictions on their freedoms for five to eight years.

If they had rejected them, the commanders would have faced up to 20 years in prison, per the terms of the peace deal.

The signatories were former top leader Rodrigo Londono – known best by his nom de guerre Timochenko – Jaime Alberto Parra, Pablo Catatumbo, Pastor Alape, Julian Gallo and Rodrigo Grande.

The JEP can also prosecute military leaders for allegations of war crimes, in addition to the cases it handles related to former FARC members.

Colombia’s conflict, which also includes former right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels, has killed 260,000 people and displaced millions.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; editing by Grant McCool)

COVID-19 cases falling in U.S., Canada, but still rising in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil: PAHO

BRASILIA (Reuters) – COVID-19 infections are finally decreasing in the United States and Canada after weeks of unrelenting rise, but in Mexico cases and deaths continue to increase, particularly in states that drew tourism in the holiday season, the Pan American Health Organization said on Wednesday.

In South America, Colombia reported the highest incidence of cases, followed by Brazil, where the city of Manaus is still seeing exponential increases in both cases and deaths, PAHO director Carissa Etienne said. Three new variants have been detected in 20 countries of the Americas, though their frequency is still limited, she said in a briefing.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Trump returns Cuba to U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday announced it was returning Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Cuba was being blacklisted for “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism” by harboring U.S. fugitives as well as Colombian rebel leaders.

Pompeo also cited Communist-ruled Cuba’s security support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which he said had allowed the socialist leader to create “a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.”

“With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The terrorism list decision followed months of legal review, with some administration experts questioning whether it was justified, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trump has clamped down on Cuba since coming to power in 2017, tightening restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba, and imposing sanctions on shipments of Venezuelan oil to the island.

Trump’s hardline Cuba policy was popular among the large Cuban-American population in South Florida.

Syria, Iran and North Korea are other countries on the list.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washinton and Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Latin American nations seek more time to join WHO vaccine plan

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Several Latin American countries have informed the World Health Organization (WHO) they intend to request more time to sign up for its global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX, an official at the WHO’s regional branch said on Thursday.

Countries have until midnight on Friday to formalize legally binding commitments to COVAX, a mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual vaccines.

A representative for the GAVI Alliance, the COVAX secretariat, said by email that details of which nations have joined COVAX will only be made public after the deadline.

Health officials in Mexico, which has the worst outbreak in Latin America after Brazil, said their country would sign the commitment on time. Brazil, which has the world’s most severe outbreak outside the United States and India, was still studying what to do, a ministry spokesperson said.

More than 170 countries have joined the global vaccine plan to help buy and distribute immunization shots for COVID-19 fairly around the world, WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Latin American countries were having trouble meeting the deadline and some wanted to push back the date.

Barbosa said all countries in the Americas except the United States had expressed interest in the vaccine facility, even those that have separate agreements with vaccine makers, because it gives them an added guarantee of access to doses.

Ten Latin American countries are among 90 poor nations in the world that will not have to pay for the vaccine, while the others in the region will pay an “accessible” price through COVAX, Barbosa said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed on Wednesday that his government was joining COVAX and Paraguay’s health ministry said it has already signed, even as it plans to buy the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Diego Ore in Mexico City, Julia Cobb in Bogotá, Daniela Desantis in Asunción; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Chizu Nomiyama)

U.N. decries nearly 50% increase in killings of women activists in Colombia

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Killings of women engaged in community organizing and defending human rights in Colombia increased nearly 50% in 2019 compared to the year before, the United Nations said on Wednesday as it urged the government to redouble protection efforts.

Violence against so-called “social leaders” has become a top issue for the government of President Ivan Duque, who has faced frequent criticism from the international community, non-governmental organizations and human rights activists for not doing enough to stop the killings.

Last year, 108 human rights defenders of all genders were killed, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told journalists, while a further 10 cases were still being verified.

Fifteen of the activists murdered were women.

“We are alarmed that in 2019 the killings of women human rights defenders increased close to 50%,” said Alberto Brunori, the U.N.’s human rights chief in Colombia.

“The quick and effective implementation of a comprehensive program of guarantees for women leaders and women human rights defenders could be an important tool for prevention and protection against murders and attacks,” he added.

The number of activist killings has fallen overall since Duque took office in August 2018, the center-right president told journalists at a breakfast event on Wednesday.

“There is a reduction, but the figure should be zero,” said Duque. He blamed the killings on Marxist-led National Liberation Army rebels, dissidents from the FARC rebel movement who reject a 2016 peace deal, and criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining.

There were 36 massacres – defined as the killing of more than four people – in Colombia last year, the highest figure in the last five years, the U.N. rights office said.

Fifteen people died in police or army operations involving presumed arbitrary detentions, the U.N. added.

A total of 115 activists were killed in Colombia in 2018.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brown)

Two strong quakes shake central Colombia: USGS

Two strong quakes shake central Colombia: USGS
(Reuters) – Two strong quakes, of magnitude 6.0 and magnitude 5.8, struck central Colombia on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quakes’ epicenters were very close to each other, about 150 km (93 miles) south of the capital Bogota, and were very shallow, which would have amplified their effects.

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake is considered strong and is capable of causing severe damage however the area is not densely populated.

(Reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Strong quake in Peru kills one person, disrupts some oil operations

An aerial view shows a landslide caused by a quake in Yurimaguas, in the Amazon region, Peru May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

LIMA (Reuters) – A magnitude 8 earthquake killed one person, destroyed dozens of homes and disrupted some oil operations as it rocked Peru early on Sunday, authorities said.

The quake – the biggest to hit Peru since 2007 – was felt across the country and in neighboring Ecuador and Colombia after striking the sparsely-populated region of Loreto in Peru’s northern Amazon.

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra said the hardest hit areas were the towns of Yurimaguas and Tarapoto.

“In reality, it’s affected all of the Peruvian jungle,” Vizcarra told journalists in broadcast comments as he surveyed the damage in Yurimaguas.

A 48-year-old man was killed in the region of Cajamarca after a boulder struck his home, emergency officials said. Peru’s National Emergency Center (COEN) said there were at least 11 people injured and more than 50 homes destroyed. Several schools, churches, hospitals and clinics were also damaged.

State-owned oil company Petroperu said the quake created a “minor” leak in a pipe at its Talara refinery on the Pacific coast that it said it has since controlled. It also suspended oil pumping at its Station 1 facility in Loreto in order to evaluate damage it detected there, it said in a statement.

Peru's President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

A spokeswoman for Canadian oil company Frontera Energy , which operates Peru’s largest oil block in of Loreto, said there were no damages to its installations.

TV images showed large fissures in a highway in Cajamarca and piles of mud and debris that had swept onto other roads.

Peru sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where the majority of the world’s seismic activity occurs.

The quake on Sunday was rated as one of “intermediate depth” at around 110 kilometers (68 miles). Intermediate depth quakes typically cause less surface damage than shallower tremors.

The earthquake was around 75 km SSE of Lagunas and 180 km east of the town of Moyobamba, the USGS said.

There were local reports of electric power cuts in the cities of Iquitos and Tarapoto, Amazonian towns in the Loreto region of the country. Pictures and videos online also showed some cracked and damaged walls, homes shaking and a collapsed bridge.

In neighboring Ecuador, the quake was strongest near the Amazonian region of Yantzaza, causing momentary power outages.

Ecuadorian officials reported at least seven people injured, as well as mudslides and minor damage to homes. The country´s oil and mining infrastructure was operating normally, Ecuadorian Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan, Dave Sherwood and Mitra Taj; Editing by Keith Weir, Phil Berlowitz and Susan Thomas)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Crowds see off Venezuela convoy headed to Colombia border for aid

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the arrest of the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido left Caracas with some 80 lawmakers on Thursday on a 800-km (500-mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine to alleviate shortages in defiance of President Nicolas Maduro.

Crowds formed alongside a main highway out of the capital, waving Venezuelan flags and whooping in support, as the convoy of buses departed.

Guaido, recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has pledged to bring in the humanitarian aid by land and sea on Saturday. Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency on Jan. 23 and denounces Maduro as an usurper.

“Through this call for humanitarian aid, the population will benefit from the arrival of these goods to the Venezuelan border,” said opposition legislator Edgar Zambrano, as he waited to board a bus in a plaza of eastern Caracas.

Maduro’s beleaguered socialist government denies there is an economic crisis in Venezuela and has said soldiers would be stationed along the country’s borders to prevent potential incursions.

He accuses the Trump administration, which recognizes Guaido and is supporting the relief effort but has levied crippling sanctions against his government, of seeking to force his ouster.

Guaido still has not provided details on how they will bring in the aid. Opposition figures have suggested forming human chains across the Colombian border to pass aid packages from person to person and fleets of boats arriving from the Dutch Caribbean islands.

The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, which Maduro has mocked as a “cheap show.” Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, has alleged the aid is poisonous and could lead to cancer.

On Wednesday, Maduro’s socialist administration said it had closed the country’s maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire after Curacao’s government said it would help store aid destined for Venezuela.

Colombia expelled five Venezuelans from Cucuta for “carrying forward activities which attack citizen security and social order,” its migration agency said in a statement late on Wednesday.

“We know there is interest by the Maduro dictatorship in affecting national security because of coming events,” agency director Christian Kruger added in the statement.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall)