Increasingly, the FARC-EP is using weapons that cause significant and avoidable civilian casualties, in violation of international humanitarian rules. Among them are gas cylinder bombs, which are impossible to aim consistently and often strike civilian homes and shops as well as churches, health centers, and municipal offices, causing avoidable civilian casualties.
Gas cylinder bombs are made with a tank normally used to supply a household stove. The tank is loaded with fuel and shrapnel, then placed in a tube packed with dynamite. Typically, the tube is placed on the bed of a pickup truck positioned near the area that guerrillas intend to attack. The tank is launched when operators light a fuse linked to the dynamite charge. The tubes cannot be aimed accurately and are considered indiscriminate weapons.
The use of indiscriminate weapons is a violation of one of the most fundamental principles of the laws of war, which requires that combatants be distinguished from noncombatants and that military objectives be distinguished from protected property or protected places. Parties to a conflict must direct their operations only against military objectives.
Under Protocol I, article 51(4), indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that are not directed solely against a military objective; that employ a method or means of combat that cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or employ a method or means of combat whose effects cannot be limited as required by the Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.
Although this protocol applies only to situations of international armed conflict, the provisions prohibiting indiscriminate warfare are part of customary international law and are binding on all parties to both internal and international conflicts.
In Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, a FARC-EP attack with gas cylinder bombs on March 25, 2000 resulted in the deaths of six civilians as the gas cylinders exploded on their homes. Among the dead were Nuria del Caicedo, her four-year-old son Jair, and her three-year-old daughter Leydy. The town's center was left a ruin, with the parish building, the mayor's offices, the power company, and ten civilian dwellings destroyed.41
There have also been reports that the FARC-EP may be adding substances to these weapons to increase their destructive power. In San Antonio de los Micos, Tolima, for instance, the CNP reported that they had found signs that guerrillas had added ammonium nitrate to the gas cylinder bombs used in the February 25, 2001 attack on the town. Guerrillas destroyed the residence of the local priest and several civilian homes.42
The FARC-EP itself has recognized that these devices cause avoidable civilian casualties. In an interview with the newspaper Voz, Commander Jorge Briceño, known as "Mono Jojoy" and a member of the General Secretariat, said "What we have acknowledged is that mistakes have been committed with the use of [gas cylinders], the civilian population has been affected and this is not our intention."43
Nevertheless, the FARC-EP continues to use gas cylinder bombs. In the first four months of 2001, the FARC-EP used gas cylinder bombs in at least two attacks on Colombian towns.44
41 In the attack, the FARC-EP also allegedly violated the prohibition on killing combatants hors de combat. Twenty-three police agents died in the attack, and police reported that several had been executed and mutilated after surrendering. "Quemaron a alcalde de Vigía del Fuerte y mataron a dos niños," El Tiempo, March 28, 2000; "Vicepresidente exige a actores armados respeto al D.I.H.," El Tiempo, March 28, 2001.