The main rebel group in Colombia must stop attacking civilians using gas cylinder bombs, Human Rights Watch told the rebel commander in a letter released today. Using such weapons, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP) has indiscriminately killed and injured numerous civilians and destroyed homes, schools, and churches.

The most recent of these attacks occurred on May 2, 2002, in Bojayá, Chocó. During a reported clash between the FARC-EP and paramilitary forces, civilians sought refuge in a local church. According to credible reports received by Human Rights Watch, at least one gas cylinder bomb fired by the FARC-EP forces struck this church, killing at least 117 civilians, including at least forty-eight children, and injuring at least 114 other civilians.

"The FARC-EP is responsible for committing systematic atrocities against civilians," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The FARC-EP must immediately stop using gas cylinder bombs, because their use constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law."

Gas cylinder bombs are indiscriminate weapons impossible to aim with accuracy, and consequently often strike civilian objects and cause avoidable civilian casualties. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on civilians and civilian objects. The use of gas cylinder bombs in a civilian area violates the international humanitarian law prohibition against indiscriminate attacks. Violations involving direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians during an internal conflict are increasingly recognized internationally as war crimes.

In a twelve-page letter to Manuel Marulanda, the FARC-EP's commander-in-chief, Human Rights Watch documented the FARC-EP's use of gas cylinder bombs in at least twenty-seven attacks since July 2001, not including the recent attack in Bojayá, Chocó. At least twelve civilians were killed and forty-five others injured, including ten children, during these attacks. Gas cylinder bombs launched by the FARC-EP have caused severe damage to schools, churches, and civilian homes and places of work in Colombia.

Human Rights Watch reminded Marulanda that to use indiscriminate weapons violates one of the most basic principles of the laws of war, which requires that combatants be distinguished from noncombatants and that military objectives be distinguished from protected property or places.

Formally established in 1964, the FARC-EP is Colombia's oldest and largest rebel group. Although estimates differ, the FARC-EP is believed to have over 15,000 members and is active throughout Colombia. Marulanda was one of its original founders and now presides over the General Secretariat, the group's governing body.

"As the most senior commander of the FARC-EP, Manuel Marulanda is responsible for the persistent human rights abuses committed by his forces," said Vivanco. "He bears the responsibility for ensuring that FARC-EP forces abide by international legal norms, and that is why we addressed him directly."

Human Rights Watch previously wrote to Commander Marulanda on July 10, 2001, urging him to stop his forces from committing a wide range of human rights abuses, including the use of prohibited weapons. Since then, however, the FARC-EP has not only continued to use gas cylinder bombs, but has escalated its use of them in blatant disregard for international humanitarian law.