Did Uribe aid '97 massacre?

A jailed paramilitary fighter claims Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his brother helped plan a 1997 massacre in a village suspected of harboring leftist guerrillas, according to sworn testimony given to the nation's prosecutor general and obtained by El Nuevo Herald.

Uribe revealed and denied the allegation in an interview with Colombian radio last week, saying it was another of many fraudulent attempts to link him to the right-wing paramilitaries.

The accuser, Enrique Villalba Hernandez, 36, is a former paramilitary serving a 33-year sentence at a Bogotá penitentiary. He surrendered to authorities three months after the massacre and confessed to taking part in the killings and other atrocities.

There's no known independent evidence to support his allegation, and his testimony contains two inconsistencies, including the fact that one of the Colombian military officers who he says attended a meeting in late 1997 was killed in April of that year.

Portions of Villalba's testimony were cited by the International Human Rights Court in a ruling two years ago that condemned Colombia for the 1997 massacre in the township of El Aro, in the northern department of Antioquia. Uribe was governor of Antioquia at the time.

The ruling accused Colombian security forces of collaborating with the paramilitaries -- illegal militias created by ranchers and businessmen to fight the leftist guerrillas -- in the massacre of at least 15 El Aro residents.

It also cites testimony claiming that Uribe refused to protect the residents of El Aro after learning that a paramilitary attack was imminent.

But earlier this year, testifying under oath before prosecutors, Villalba alleged that Uribe and his brother Santiago had been at two meetings with the paramilitaries before and after the killings, according to copies of his 19-page testimony obtained by El Nuevo Herald.

Villalba testified that three days before the massacre, a meeting was held in an Antioquia farm between the paramilitaries, commanders of the Army's IV Brigade, police officials and the Uribe brothers to plan the attack and rescue eight ranchers who had been kidnapped by the rebels.

''Also there were Santiago Uribe and Alvaro Uribe, who was then governor,'' he alleged. Alvaro Uribe told the paramilitaries ``to do whatever had to be done.''

Villalba has told the daily El Colombiano of Medellín that the paramilitary carried a list of victims when they entered El Aro, which had about 500 inhabitants, on Oct. 25 1997.

When asked by prosecutors if he had ever met the Uribe brothers before the alleged meeting with the paramilitaries, Villalba replied that he had not known Alvaro Uribe, but that Santiago ``was always known in the [paramilitary] organization.''

Villalba stated that he found out who Uribe was after the massacre, when the then-governor returned to the same farm to congratulate the paramilitaries for rescuing the kidnap victims.

[Source: By Gonzalo Guillen and Gerardo Reyes, The Miami Herald, 27Apr08]

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