Task Force Seeks to Help Ecuadorians Made Homeless by Colombian Rebels

Quito - Quito moved Monday to create a high-level emergency task force to address the plight of nearly 300 Ecuadorans, now "strangers in their own land," who fled their homes due to intimidation by Colombian insurgents. Red Cross spokesman Ricardo Camacho said a meeting between First Lady Maria Isabel de Noboa and high-level Red Cross officials was called to discuss emergency assistance to the families from the Amazonian province of Sucumbios. No further details of the task force were immediately available. Some 272 Ecuadorans from the northeastern Sucumbios province are currently living in makeshift shelters originally built to house Colombian refugees fleeing the violence there, the Red Cross said. It is not known, whether armed insurgents who stormed through the villages of Bermeja San Miguel, Jambeli, Cascales and Sucumbios, forcing the Ecuadorans to flee, are leftist Colombian guerrillas or their sworn enemies, members of right-wing paramilitary groups. The displacements are believed to be a repercussion from the US-backed Plan Colombia, a wildly ambitious 7.5 billion-dollar effort to eradicate the coca leaf plantations that range across 122,500 hectares (302,700 acres) that make Colombia the world's leading cocaine exporter. Ecuadoran President Gustavo Noboa in January appealed for US aid to strengthen its border with Colombia ahead of any spillover from Plan Colombia, saying Ecuador would need financial aid to meet the needs of Colombian refugees and homeless. The nation's Civil Defense director Ricardo Avendano said Monday it was "unacceptable" that the displaced nationals, now "strangers in their own land," have been forced to flee to the temporary shelters built by the UN High Commission for Refugees. He decried the lack of funds available for displaced Ecuadorans. Ecuador's Sucumbios province borders the coca-producing Putumayo region in southern Colombia that is controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest and oldest rebel group. Red Cross director in Ecuador, Frank Wilbahuer, who was present at the task force meeting, said his organization was able to give support to the refugees, but "only for a limited time." "What is going to happen to these poor people; what does the future hold for them? Will they ever be able to go home?" Wilbahuer said. He warned that unless there is "a slightly stronger presence of our armed forces," more Ecuadorans might be forced from their homes in similar circumstances. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in January he would like to see additional funds be provided to Colombia's neighbors to guard against just such a "spillover" emergency.

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