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Colombia Killings Imperil U.S. Aid

Associated Press
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A16

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 4 -- A Colombian army unit blamed for the massacre of eight civilians denied responsibility for the killings Friday, even as the United States called for a swift investigation. The slayings have raised doubts about the military's commitment to human rights and jeopardized part of Washington's huge military aid package to this embattled nation.

The Feb. 21 attack took place in the Uraba district of northwest Colombia. The victims, residents of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, which tried to isolate itself from the country's long-running civil war by barring armed groups, were hacked to death with machetes and buried on a farm.

The case is undergoing scrutiny days after the State Department reported human rights violations by the Colombian Armed Forces but said the situation had improved. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will certify soon whether Colombia's human rights record is good enough to warrant full military aid. If not, about $35 million in assistance would be suspended.

It would be highly unusual for Washington to suspend aid to one of its strongest allies in Latin America.

"If the army was involved, it would raise real concerns," said Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of the amendment requiring certification of on human rights progress before military aid is released.

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