Indigenous groups in Cauca province on Colombia’s Pacific have clashed with the army, driving soldiers away from a military base after demanding that the armed forces and FARC rebels both withdraw from their land.
On July 17, hundreds of members of the Nasa tribe attacked soldiers guarding Berlin hill in the Toribio municipality, where telecommunications towers are located. The Nasa began climbing the hill at 6 a.m., reported Vanguardia, in a group including including women, children, and elderly people, and clashed with soldiers.
The troops were under orders not to respond with force, and dramatic images in El Espectador show a uniformed soldier being lifted in the air and dragged from his post by a group armed with sticks. One soldier reportedly fired shots into the air in frustration, but that there were no serious injuries in the clashes. (See video footage of clash, below.)
The army said it had temporarily withdrawn to avoid further clashes. The Associated Press reported that six soldiers were removed, while the BBC said the Nasa reported the number at around 100, and Vanguardia put the number at 30.
The army retook control of the hill in the early hours of the next morning. Representatives of the indigenous groups said that some 26 of them had been wounded, as the army used stun grenades and rubber bullets, reported El Liberal.
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The Colombian government may use even greater force if there are more clashes with the Nasa. Cauca is a crucially important region, and the authorities are unlikely to allow residents to eject them from it. President Juan Manuel Santos made this clear after the protests, saying "we will not cede a single centimeter of Cauca or of the national territory," while police Colonel Ricardo Alarcon told the press that the hill was an important strategic site for operations against the guerrillas.
Cauca is a crucial location for the rebels, as it is part of a corridor connecting the coca-producing interior of the country to the Pacific coast, from which drug shipments are launched. As well as the FARC, it is home to the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group and the Rastrojos drug gang, who have formed a loose alliance.
The region has seen some of the worst combat between guerrillas and government forces in recent years. Fighting has been raging in the Toribio region for the last two weeks, killing at least three civilians and displacing thousands.
The government has attempted to link the protests with the FARC. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon claimed the indigenous groups had been infiltrated by the rebels, saying “we know that this is what the FARC want, to generate a confrontation, but our army is very professional,” reported El Espectador.
The incident could be damaging for President Juan Manuel Santos, who has come under criticism for recent deteriorations in security in the country. He has changed his planned schedule to go to Cauca and deal with the situation first hand, saying on his Twitter account “I don’t want to see a single indigenous person on an army base,” El Espectador reported.