Colombian authorities should take immediate steps to protect the civilian population in the area of southern Colombia ceded to rebels for peace talks, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 9, Colombian President Andrés Pastrana announced the end of three years of peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP). In January 1999, guerrillas took control over a 15,000-square mile area, known as the zona de despeje. The government withdrew its security forces. Approximately 90,000 Colombians live in the area, which covers five municipalities in the departments of Meta and Caquetá.

"The civilians who live in the zone were never consulted before they were included in this area and they certainly weren't consulted about the decision to end talks," said José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Now, they risk being identified as pro-guerrilla simply because they remained in their homes, farms, schools, and businesses. The government must ensure that any operation by its forces to retake the zone include strict instructions to protect the civilian population."

Vivanco also noted that residents of the area interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they feared that paramilitaries allied with the army would attack them as guerrilla sympathizers if peace talks were suspended. As yet, the military has failed to take the necessary steps to break ties to these groups, responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Human Rights Watch has called on all sides in Colombia's conflict to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.