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Colombia mourns children killed in shootout

Pastrana vows to investigate army's role

PUEBLO RICO, Colombia -- Six children were buried in Pueblo Rico on Wednesday, one day after they died under a hail of bullets while on a school outing.

The government and army say the children were caught in cross fire between rebels and soldiers, but townspeople and the children themselves insist there were no guerrillas in the area and that troops were the only ones firing.

"Those who fired at us were soldiers. ... There were no guerrillas. ... One soldier started crying and said he had killed innocent children," one young girl, who declined to be identified, told reporters in Pueblo Rico.

Five other children were injured in the attack, which took place Tuesday near this town in war-torn northwest Antioquia province. The dead and injured were among 60 pupils, ages 6 to 12, walking through the countryside with teachers and other adults on a school outing.

The regional army commander, Gen. Eduardo Herrera, said the youngsters had been accidentally caught in the cross fire of a clash between soldiers and 11 National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas near Pueblo Rico. He accused the insurgents of using the children as "human shields."

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Correspondent Marisol Espinosa reviews conflicting reports of how it happened

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But Colombian President Andres Pastrana ordered an investigation on Wednesday into the town's allegations that the troops, armed with assault rifles and grenades, had ambushed the school group.

"Today Colombia is in mourning because six children have died in a hail of bullets. ... How sad it is that here in Colombia parents have to bury their own children," Pastrana said at an official event in Bogota.

"I personally will ensure that investigations are carried out to completely clarify who was responsible for this terrible incident," he added.

Colombia has been ravaged by a 30-year conflict between Marxist rebels, outlaw ultra-right paramilitary gangs and state security forces that has left more than 35,000 people, mostly civilians, dead in just the last 10 years.

The killings of the schoolchildren came two months after the U.S. Congress approved a record $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to help Colombia fight the drug trade and the guerrillas.

Townspeople in Pueblo Rico, a community of some 12,000 inhabitants, was stunned by the deaths. Many hung white flags and the tricolor national flag outside their homes as a mark of respect.

Children say they saw no rebels

Maria Girlesa Villegas, a regional government human rights ombudsman, told Reuters that the pupils had been hit by bullets and shrapnel.

"According to first-hand accounts, they (the army) were shooting at them for around 45 minutes," she said. "A 12-year-old child told me he had seen soldiers but no guerrillas. He felt the soldiers throw something that caused a powerful explosion."

Pueblo Rico town councilor Hernando Higuita, who arrived on the scene minutes after the shooting started, insisted there was no cross fire and that troops, who had clashed with ELN fighters earlier in the day, had ambushed the party.

"When I shouted to the army not to shoot because these were schoolchildren they shot even more," Higuita told reporters. "Afterward soldiers came out crying saying they had committed a grave error and had killed the children."

After the funeral, heavy with grief and bewilderment, family of the victims demanded that the government find out where the bullets came from. They asked why only the children of the village died, with no shots striking soldiers or rebels.

Correspondent Marisol Espinosa and Reuters contributed to this report.



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RELATED SITES:
Presidency of Colombia
Colombia General Information
National Liberation Army (ELN)--Colombia
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (In Spanish)
U.S. Embassy in Colombia (Spanish)
Colombia Travel Warning Issued by U.S. State Department

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