By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia's attorney-general has said he will step up investigations of 22 army generals for their alleged role in the killing of dozens of civilians in a notorious episode of the country's five-decade conflict.
The announcement on Sunday by Eduardo Montealegre comes as government and rebel negotiators hammer out a peace deal in Cuba with impunity for abuses committed by both sides during the war a thorny issue.
The extrajudicial killings involve hundreds of innocent men killed by security forces, who passed them off as guerrillas killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government's war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The scandal first came to light in 2008 when Alvaro Uribe was president, and current President Juan Manuel Santos was defense minister.
Under pressure from victims' families and the United Nations to punish those responsible for the abuses, known locally as the 'false positives' affair, Montealegre said high-ranking officers were under investigation.
"The attorney general's office is moving forward with investigations of 22 generals for false positives, and while this office has not yet made any decisions regarding these cases, this does not mean the generals are not under investigation," Montealegre's statement said.
In all, state prosecutors are investigating 5,000 members of Colombia's armed forces for extrajudicial executions involving 4,382 civilians.
There have been 817 convictions so far, including prison sentences of up to 52 years, the attorney general's office said.
According to a 2015 U.N. report, most investigations are in the early stages, and have focused on low-ranking army officers.
The United Nations has said the evidence on the false positives scandal indicated 'that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military'.
Most of the extrajudicial killings, involved poor, unemployed or mentally ill young men, including teenagers as young as 16.
Former president Uribe's all-out military offensive against the FARC meant the armed forces were under constant pressure to boost rebel body counts and show they were winning the war, the United Nations says.
"Those (extrajudicial killings) consisted of the killing of civilians by army members who reported the dead as fallen enemy fighters for the purpose of improving kill statistics, in turn obtaining financial benefits, leave, promotions and other benefits," said the United Nations' latest report on the human rights situation in Colombia.
Experts say the way Colombia deals with society's thirst for justice for abuses committed by both sides will be crucial to heal the wounds of war and secure lasting peace.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Katie Nguyen)