- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

QUIBDO, Colombia Through a hellish night and into the day, hundreds of families huddled on the floor of the church, praying for an end to the battle raging in their Colombian village.
Then with a sound like thunder and a shudder like an earthquake, a rebel mortar round came crashing through the roof, turning the sanctuary into a deathtrap.
"When I recovered my senses I began to look for my family," said survivor Octaviano Palacio. But the blast had killed them.
A week after one of the worst bloodbaths in Colombia's 38-year-old civil war, government and Roman Catholic authorities were beginning to piece together accounts of the battle between leftist guerrillas and far-right paramilitary fighters that engulfed the village of Bojaya and led to the church attack that killed as many as 117 villagers. More than a third were children.
Underscoring its lack of control over wide swaths of this South American country, the military on Tuesday was still trying to reach Bojaya, reportedly strewn with corpses and with wounded awaiting evacuation.
In statement read to reporters in Quibdo Tuesday by phone, a commander of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the mortar attack on the church was accidental. He accused the paramilitaries of putting the civilians in danger with their presence.
The sweltering, swampy region of northwest Colombia is a strategic corridor near the border with Panama that is used by the warring groups to smuggle drugs and arms.
The locals, most of whom are black descendants of slaves in one of the most neglected areas on the continent, have been caught in the crossfire as the rebels and paramilitaries seek control of the corridor.
The FARC attacked Vigia del Fuerte, a town just across the Atrato River from Bojaya, in March 2000, driving out its police force after killing 21 officers. Once under rebel control, the area became a target for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a brutal right-wing militia group that has acted with the support of elements of the Colombian military.
According to a report by the Roman Catholic diocese in Quibdo, six boatloads of paramilitary fighters moved into Bojaya and Vigia del Fuerte on April 21.
Four days later, the FARC began blocking shipments of food and gasoline to flush out the paramilitaries. Then, on May 1, they attacked a paramilitary boat on the river, setting off the fighting that drove the villagers of Bojaya into the church.
Mr. Palacio spent a fearful night there, huddled among the pews with his wife, two children and hundreds of other civilians. The next afternoon, with paramilitaries reportedly taking up positions in the town, the rebel mortar round came whistling in.
"It sounded first like thunder and then felt like an earthquake," said Mr. Palacio, a 50-year-old farmer. "I saw my wife, dead, and then began looking for my children."
His 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son died, too, Mr. Palacio said from his hospital bed in Quibdo, where he fled after the attack. His arm was disfigured, and shrapnel wounds covered his neck and back.


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