UN condemns violent repression of protests in Colombia

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The United Nations has condemned the violent repression of protests in Colombia, after clashes between police and protesters left at least 18 dead and 87 people missing.

In a week of unrest across the country, riot police have swept through smoke-filled streets, shooting protesters at point-blank range and attacking crowds with their motorcycles.

At least five people died in Cali amid new episodes of violence on Monday night. The southwestern city, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, has been the scene of much of the violence since the protests began peacefully with a nationwide general strike last Wednesday.

“We are deeply alarmed by the events in Cali during the night, where the police opened fire on protesters and several people were killed and injured,” a UN human rights spokesman said on Tuesday.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano faces increasing calls to resign, but insisted Tuesday that the conduct of the police officers “is within the law.”

“Our duty is to protect those who protest – and those who don’t – from those who disguise themselves and take advantage of these crowds to terrorize Colombians,” he said.

But witnesses said officers appeared to exacerbate tensions. “It’s as if the police are waiting for night to fall so they can get closer and start shooting indiscriminately,” said a community leader in a poor neighborhood in Cali who has been repeatedly raided by the police. “The bodies are going to pile up, the dead on the dead.”

The leader said each night brings a new cacophony: police helicopters whirl overhead as sirens, flashbangs and bubbling tear gas dominate the streets. Protesters, seeking to block riot police from entering their communities, set up barricades made of burning rubble.

“The order was to militarize the city, so that’s what happens,” said the leader. “We hope the international community will pay attention, because so far no one else has.”

Cell phone images circulated on social media showed scenes reminiscent of a war zone. On one, a bloody and seemingly lifeless body is surrounded by an anguished crowd. “They shot him, you son of a bitch!” spectators can be heard screaming. In another, a civilian is seen collapsing limply to the ground after an officer on a motorcycle struck him on the back of the head.

In a week of unrest across the country, riot police have swept through smoke-filled streets, shooting protesters at point-blank range and attacking crowds with their motorcycles.

At least five people died in Cali amid new episodes of violence on Monday night. The southwestern city, which has a large Afro-Colombian population, has been the scene of much of the violence since the protests began peacefully with a nationwide general strike last Wednesday.

“We are deeply alarmed by the events in Cali during the night, where the police opened fire on protesters and several people were killed and injured,” a UN human rights spokesman said on Tuesday.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano faces increasing calls to resign, but insisted Tuesday that the conduct of the police officers “is within the law.”

“Our duty is to protect those who protest – and those who don’t – from those who disguise themselves and take advantage of these crowds to terrorize Colombians,” he said.

But witnesses said officers appeared to exacerbate tensions. “It’s as if the police are waiting for night to fall so they can get closer and start shooting indiscriminately,” said a community leader in a poor neighborhood in Cali who has been repeatedly raided by the police. “The bodies are going to pile up, the dead on the dead.”

The leader said each night brings a new cacophony: police helicopters whirl overhead as sirens, flashbangs and bubbling tear gas dominate the streets. Protesters, seeking to block riot police from entering their communities, set up barricades made of burning rubble.

“The order was to militarize the city, so that’s what happens,” said the leader. “We hope the international community will pay attention, because so far no one else has.”

Cell phone images circulated on social media showed scenes reminiscent of a war zone. On one, a bloody and seemingly lifeless body is surrounded by an anguished crowd. “They shot him, you son of a bitch!” spectators can be heard screaming. In another, a civilian is seen collapsing limply to the ground after an officer on a motorcycle struck him on the back of the head.