By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Top Colombian military officials allegedly helped facilitate illegal killings of civilians committed by units under their command, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday, as it urged the government to hold leaders accountable.
Commanders, including the current head of the armed forces, allegedly ordered or knew about the so-called "false positives" killings between 2002 and 2008, the advocacy group said in a new report.
Army troops, eager to increase "positive" body counts and obtain rewards like vacation time during the government's 50-year war with Marxist guerrillas, lured civilians to remote areas with promises of work, later killing them and reporting them as dead rebels.
Multiple military leaders could be considered criminally liable for the killings, which number more than 3,000, and the government has the ability to bring them to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
"False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that many senior army officers bear responsibility," Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Yet the army officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces."
Former President Alvaro Uribe served during the period and current President Juan Manuel Santos was his defense minister.
Vivanco will meet with Santos later Wednesday to discuss the report, which the NGO said was based largely on previously unpublished case files, witness testimony and audio recordings.
Military leaders have denied responsibility for the alleged crimes and said no charges have been brought against them.
The report was released a day after the attorney general's office requested that four retired generals give statements about false positive cases. Some 800 soldiers have so far been convicted of involvement in the crimes.
"We hope that the government and the attorney general's office will take all the necessary measures to ensure that these cases are fully investigated," said Max Schoening, the report's author, "to ensure that those most responsible for these horrific crimes are brought to justice."
According to the group, the head of the armed forces, General Juan Pablo Rodriguez, helped cover up false positive crimes committed by units of the army's 4th Brigade when he was its commanding officer.
A key witness cited in the report, retired Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Gonzalez del Rio, worked under Rodriguez and has admitted responsibility for some 27 false positive deaths.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)