WASHINGTON — Colombia's leftist guerrillas have stepped up their use of land mines in recent years, maiming or killing hundreds of civilians, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the group's Americas director, said land mines were on the wane around the globe, with only the governments of Russia, Myanmar and Nepal refusing to ban their use.
But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish initials as the FARC, have been "increasing the use of land mines with a devastating effect on civilians," Vivanco said at a news briefing unveiling the 34-page report.
Land mines long have been deployed in Colombia's conflict, but the annual casualty rate never exceeded 148 during the 1990s. Casualties jumped to 287 in 2001 and peaked at 1,112 in 2005, before falling slightly to 1,107 last year, the report shows.
Most of the victims were government soldiers and police hunting for guerrillas deep in the Colombian jungles, but civilian casualties also climbed. In 2000, 66 civilians were hurt by land mines. The number jumped to 314 last year, according to the report.
Since 2002, the Colombian government has gone on the offensive against the FARC, Latin America's oldest and largest guerrilla group, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, which also uses land mines to protect its territory.
Human Rights Watch interviewed ELN leader Francisco Galvan, who refused to reject the use of land mines, arguing that international humanitarian laws don't apply to his group, according to the report.
Vivanco said the report sought to shame guerrillas into renouncing land mines, a technique that worked well to curb land-mine deployment in places such as Africa. The rights organization interviewed dozens of officials, aid workers and victims.
Vivanco said there were indications that guerrillas were deploying their land mines — usually homemade devices — to protect their camps from government raids or were leaving mines behind as they passed through an area.
He said there also were reports that illegal right-wing paramilitary groups, created to fight the leftist guerrillas, had stockpiled mines but weren't using them.
The Colombian government has long stopped using land mines. Vivanco said officials should reach out to survivors to better inform them of rehabilitation programs.
Relations between the Colombian government and Human Rights Watch have been strained since the rights group urged the U.S. Congress to reject a free-trade agreement with the South American nation, arguing that Bogota was doing too little to stop abuses by paramilitary groups.