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Thousands affected by fighting near Colombia-Ecuador border

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia, July 1 (UNHCR) - Fighting in south-western Colombia has driven thousands of civilians out of their homes, including more than 100 into neighbouring Ecuador.
Heavy fighting in recent days between irregular armed groups and the Colombian army has displaced more than 1,200 Awá indigenous people in the Ricaurte municipality of Nariño province. About 29 Awá families (some 116 people) have so far crossed into Ecuadorian territory.

"We fear that hundreds more may be currently displaced in the area or find themselves trapped in their villages by the armed groups, unable to find enough food and living under extremely dangerous security conditions," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva on Friday. "We are also concerned that the blockades against the movement of people and goods, the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded munitions, as well as heavy material damage and loss of livestock, could hamper the reintegration of the displaced in the event they return to their homes following the end of hostilities."

The same area of Nariño province witnessed intense combat and massive internal displacement in February 2004. Redmond noted that UNHCR is monitoring the situation closely through its offices on both sides of the border.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Putumayo province, battles have broken out near the town of Teteyé following a June 25 attack by armed guerrilla groups against Colombian military forces that were protecting petroleum installations in the area. Twenty-one Colombian army soldiers were killed in the attack.

An estimated 4,000 people in Teteyé, Nuevo Horizonte, La Cabaña and La Carmelita have been unable to move to safer areas inside Colombia due to the presence of armed groups and the destruction of several bridges during the fighting. The clashes have impeded the civilian population's ability to seek safety across the border. Communities further away along the Putumayo river have also been affected.

"We urgently call for the respect of the rights of the civilian population as well as for the respect of the special protection measures for indigenous populations established under international and Colombian law," said Redmond.