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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
UN help for Colombia displaced
Colombian soldiers
Soldiers fight armed gangs and civilians are caught in the middle

The United Nations refugee agency has reached what it calls a landmark agreement with the Colombian authorities to help refugees and internally displaced people in the country.

According to government figures, Colombia's long-running civil war has uprooted nearly one million people, but human rights organisations put the figure three times higher.

"Displacement in Colombia is a huge and growing issue, affecting above all people in the countryside and border areas," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Clark told BBC News Online.

"This accord gives us a more formal and direct involvement in promoting international standards to care for displaced people."

Under the agreement, the UNHCR will work with the Colombian Senate and its human rights commission on promoting and implementing legislation to help those forced to flee their homes.

Last month, a report by a local human rights group, Codhes, said 410,000 people were displaced by the conflict in 2002 - the worst year on record.

Prisoner exchange

Fighting between troops, guerrillas and paramilitaries not only forces people from their homes.

The unrest and breakdown in law and order in many regions allows hostage-taking to flourish. Colombia has the world's highest kidnapping rate, with all the extremist groups involved in what is seen as a lucrative sideline.

A Farc rebel
Rebels want their fighters released in exchange for hostages

The biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is holding hundreds of hostages.

These include senators, governors, mayors, police officers and members of the military, but also many ordinary Colombians.

President Alvaro Uribe's government has signalled its willingness to sign a prisoner exchange as part of a humanitarian accord with the FARC.

In return, the rebels must comply with a series of demands - an idea they have so far rejected.

However, Colombia's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo has said any exchange of jailed rebels for hostages would need a special act of Congress.

Mr Restrepo said the Colombian constitution did not allow for every crime to be pardoned or the perpetrators released, and only a special law would allow the president to order this.

The commissioner, who was addressing a meeting called to discuss the issue of hostages, did not say if President Uribe would ask Congress for such powers.

But he added that it was a positive sign that "the possibility of such a debate is being considered".

War uproots more Colombians
29 Apr 03  |  Americas
Uribe defiant after failed rescue
06 May 03  |  Americas
Country profile: Colombia
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Kidnapped in Colombia
20 Sep 02  |  Correspondent

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