Protesters in Colombia clash with oil company and take hostages
Caracas, Venezuela – Colombian Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez and the commander of his armed forces, Helder Giraldo, have landed in Caqueta province to seek the release of dozens of police officers and oil field workers who were taken hostage during deadly protests.
At least 79 police officers and nine oil field workers have been detained since Tuesday as protesters demand the oil company Emerald Energy invest in surrounding rural communities.
An officer and a civilian were killed in clashes between riot police and protesters on Thursday, as protesters took over the oil company’s offices. Police sources indicate that the civilian was shot dead, while the officer suffered a stab wound.
“The murder of subordinate Ricardo Arley Monroy, who was mercilessly murdered when defenseless in the power of his captors, deserves general condemnation,” Velasquez tweeted late Thursday, referring to the slain police officer. “Nothing, nothing justifies this act.”
Other cabinet ministers are expected to join Velasquez and Giraldo on Friday in San Vicente del Caguan, a city in southern Colombia where much of the violence is taking place. Among them are Interior Minister Alfonso Prada and Transport Minister Guillermo Reyes.
On Friday, the office of Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro announced that six oilfield workers were still in the custody of the protesters, up from nine reported earlier this week. However, there was no update on the number of police officers detained.
“It is important that farmers release the police in their care,” Velasquez tweeted.
Petro repeated calls for the release of the hostages. “I insist on the unilateral release of the police officers,” he wrote on Twitter. “Protecting their integrity is essential to the government.”
Twenty-two protesters were also injured, according to a local agricultural association involved in the demonstrations.
Police told the Reuters news agency that dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a disbanded rebel group, may be involved in the violence. In 2016, the FARC signed a peace deal that some members rejected in favor of continued armed action.
But Alexander Ospina, a spokesman for the communities involved in the protests, told Al Jazeera he had seen no evidence of involvement of FARC dissidents. He said such rumors seemed designed to delegitimize the struggles of rural communities.
Protesters have called on Emerald Energy to help repair roads and invest in local institutions, including schools. As part of the unrest, members of local communities have blocked access to one of the company’s oil fields.
Ospina said protesters are waiting for government officials to arrive to start talks. They hope to reach an agreement with the government on what they see as Emerald Energy’s obligation to build infrastructure for local communities and provide compensation for environmental damage.
“To de-escalate the situation, we need to make agreements with the government that match our reality,” Ospina said. “If the oil companies don’t want to invest in our communities, then the government should remove the oil companies from our land.”
But Prada, Colombia’s interior minister, has announced that the government will not fully negotiate with the demonstrators until the hostages are released.
“We have said that an absolutely insurmountable requirement to sit down to talk to much of the national government about the social issues of the community is, of course, the immediate release of our National Police members and six workers,” he said. Prada. .
About 4,000 farmers, representing more than 150 agricultural and indigenous communities, are attending the protests, Ospina said.