At least 23 people have been killed in clashes between rebel groups in Colombia's northeastern state of Arauca, according to the country’s civilian and military authorities.
In a statement on Monday, Colombia's army said the violence was triggered by fighting between the guerilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who refused to join the peace deal.
The army said both rival groups are currently fighting for supremacy over the region’s drug trade.
Colombian President Ivan Duque also told reporters on Monday that the two dissident groups, formed by rebel fighters who refused to join the peace process in 2016, were fighting over control of drug illicit economies like drug trafficking.
Paola Tovar, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, said they are proceeding with the preliminary figure of 23 victims, but the information is still not fully clear.
“It’s very hard to enter the area where the clashes occurred, so these numbers must be handled with care,” Tovar was quoted as saying by CNN.
Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano also confirmed 23 fatalities.
However, international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) put the number of killings at 24, adding that there have also forced displacements and kidnappings as well.
Civilians too are among the victims, with at least 12 families being displaced as a result of the violence, the officials noted.
According to Colombia’s ombudsman Carlos Camargo, fighting first erupted between the dissident groups in Colombia's border region with Venezuela on Monday morning.
The roots of the conflict go back to the mid 2000s, when the two groups fought each other in Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure.
The fighting halted in 2010, when at least 868 people had been killed and 58,000 people had been displaced, according to a 2020 HRW report.
“I have ordered that two battalions be deployed within the next 72 hours to help with the task of territorial control,” Duque said in a video broadcast, while accusing his counterpart Nicolas Maduro of harboring Colombian rebels on the Venezuelan side across the two countries' borderline.
Venezuela’s Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino rejected the allegations on Twitter and said that the Venezuelan army stationed along the borderline has increased their alertness in response to fighting in Colombia.
Venezuela and Colombia, which share a 2,200-kilometer border, cut off diplomatic ties shortly after Duque came to power in August 2018.
Violence has surged recently in the transcontinental country spanning South America and North America, driven by more than 2,500 fighters from the FARC, ELN, and other militant groups.