The commander of Colombia's army resigned abruptly Tuesday in a widening scandal over the killing of scores of civilians, allegedly spurred by promotion-seeking officers to inflate rebel body counts.
Gen. Mario Montoya, who won wide acclaim for the bloodless hostage rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors on July 2, did not mention the scandal as a factor in his retirement after 39 years of service.
He did, however, ask his countrymen not prejudge soldiers who have been implicated in the scandal, to afford them “the right to defend themselves.”
Montoya's resignation follows stinging criticism of an army policy he allegedly encouraged of promoting officers whose units kill the most leftist rebels.
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Human rights groups say that policy encouraged soldiers in recent years to kill scores – perhaps hundreds – of civilians who were presented as guerrillas slain in combat. Prosecutors say they are investigating more than 90 army officers in such cases.
The government now says it rejects that policy and President Alvaro Uribe last week fired 20 army officers for negligence in failing to prevent or investigate such killings, which he blamed on “criminals conspiring with members of the military.”
On Saturday, the United Nation's top human rights official told reporters after a weeklong fact-finding mission that she considered the extrajudicial killings “widespread and systematic.”
In the most publicized case, the bodies of 11 men who disappeared from the poor Bogota suburb of Soacha early this year were later found in common graves in a conflict zone hundreds of miles away.
Since Montoya took command of the army in April 2006, the nation's military has scored historic gains against the Western Hemisphere's last major remaining rebel army, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.