BOGOTA Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Wednesday sacked some two dozen military officials, including three generals, following a probe into suspected executions initially reported as combat deaths.
The investigation has found that members of the armed forces could be involved in murders, Uribe said at a press conference in the presidential residence, flanked by senior military leaders.
Military commander General Freddy Padilla relieved three generals, 11 colonels, four majors, one captain, one lieutenant and seven lower-ranking soldiers of their duties following a probe into the disappearance of youths from poor neighborhoods in the south of the capital city. Officials had initially said 25 people had been fired.
In a statement the Defense Ministry cited a lack of leadership at different levels that could have permitted soldiers to collude with outside criminals who enjoyed impunity in exchange for helping achieve results.
The youths were declared to be rebels killed in combat in a remote area of northern Colombia just days after their disappearance was reported in Bogota.
The scandal broke following the discovery in late September of 19 bodies in communal graves in northwestern Colombia. An army investigation was launched October 3.
Relatives of the victims said that before they disappeared they had been offered high-paying work on farms in the north of the country by strangers.
They said the youths were killed just a day or two after disappearing, making it unlikely that they would have had time to join and train with an armed rebel movement.
Uribe has introduced a policy of rewarding soldiers for combat casualties to demonstrate progress in the war on Colombian insurgent groups, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro told AFP.
At a Congressional debate three years ago on so-called false positives an alleged army practice of executing civilians to inflate the number of rebel deaths, about 1,000 disappearances similar to the current case were reported, he said.
The ousted generals, top military officials in the region where the bodies were found, declared their innocence. In no circumstance would it have crossed my mind to have someone murdered to present a false positive, General Paulino Coronado told Caracol radio. General Roberto Pico told radio RCN he was very surprised by the governments decision. My conscience is clear, he said.
Amnesty International on Tuesday denounced false positives in Colombia, saying 330 people were reported killed in extrajudicial executions by security forces in 2007, most of them falsely presented as guerrillas killed in combat.
But Uribe said that the killings appeared to be part of an elaborate plot hatched by members of the military working in concert with outside elements, to provide cover for a wave of criminal activity.
The killings, he said, were meant to give the impression that criminals were being dealt with by authorities, while the real perpetrators of crimes remained at large.
After being killed by Colombian troops, the youths were classified by authorities as unidentified and buried. Some were said to have had physical or mental disabilities, making it highly unlikely that they could taken part in an armed movement.

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