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Colombians take to the streets for peace

But political violence continues

Protesters hold hands in front of Bogota's cathedral Tuesday  
In this story:
May 19, 1998
Web posted at: 8:10 p.m. EDT (0010 GMT)

BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of people across Colombia joined hands Tuesday to call for an end to paramilitary violence, but the protest was marred by yet another murder.

Gunmen shot down television reporter Bernabe Cortez in the city of Cali as he was getting into a taxi. He was the fifth Colombian journalist killed since October. Other recent assassinations include a former defense minister and a top human rights lawyer. Right-wing paramilitary groups have been blamed for many of the killings.

Ordinary Colombians filled the streets of major cities to plea for peace, holding hands and waving white flags.

"We want peace, we want life, we want tolerance, we want hope," demonstrators chanted at the midday rally in the vast Simon Bolivar Plaza in Bogota. Outside the plaza, drivers stopped their cars and sounded their horns while pedestrians waved handkerchiefs and yelled out: "Long live peace."

Broad coalition sponsors demonstrations

The massive protest was organized by a broad cross section of Colombian groups, including labor unions, business groups, human-rights organizations and university students. It was initially planned to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the assassination of two environmentalists, but as violence mounted, it became a general protest to call for peace and for punishment of the murderers. The vast majority of the killings have gone unpunished.

"This is a demonstration to show the violent just how alone they are and how much the great majority of Colombians reject them," President Ernesto Samper said, speaking at an international meeting in Cartagena.

A strongly-worded open letter by the secretary-general of Amnesty International Pierre Sane blamed Samper for letting the violence escalate, accusing him of failing to rein in the "dark forces pushing Colombia to the edge of the abyss."

Samper will be replaced after presidential elections on May 31.

Funerals held for massacre victims

Scores of villagers have died recently in a series of massacres. At least 11 people died and 40 more are missing from a paramilitary raid in the northeastern river town of Barrancabermeja on Sunday. Seven of the victims were buried Tuesday.

But even as 5,000 people turned out at the funeral, gunfire could be heard in the northeastern suburbs. Police blamed the gunfire on urban guerrillas attacking police and army patrols in retaliation for what they saw as official complicity in the paramilitary raid.

Tens of thousands of Colombians are murdered each year, making murder a leading cause of death. Much of the violence is blamed on death squads bent on snuffing out leftist rebels. A total of 563 people died in 114 mass killings across Colombia last year, according to police statistics.


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