BOGOTA (Reuters) - In a bid to tackle killings of human rights activists, Colombia will boost military operations against the criminal groups responsible and will also send more judges to remote areas, President Ivan Duque said on Wednesday.
Violence against human rights and environmental defenders, as well as community activists - known collectively in Colombia as social leaders - has become a major challenge for Duque's government, amid international criticism and demands more be done to stop the killings.
"We want to keep strengthening our fight against the criminals that have been linked to these heinous crimes," Duque said following a meeting with Colombia's attorney general and other officials, including the prosecutor general and human rights ombudsman.
Duque did not offer a timeline or other details about the expanded military operations.
Officials have agreed to speed up the strengthening of the military's operational capacity across the country, as well as that of the attorney general's office, Duque said.
Duque repeated accusations that leftist rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who reject a 2016 peace deal, and criminal groups of former right-wing paramilitaries are behind the attacks, as they seek territorial control for drug trafficking and illegal mining.
The president did not give official figures about the number of social leaders killed in 2020, which vary widely depending on the source.
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights last year reported it had received information concerning 133 killings of human rights defenders, higher than the 117 cases reported in 2019.
Local advocacy group Indepaz reported nearly triple that number of killings - 310 - for 2020.
His office solved nearly two-thirds of activist murders committed last year, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa said, without giving numbers for convictions.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Alistair Bell)