Murders of Colombian community leaders rose in first half of 2020 -report

BOGOTA, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Deadly violence against community leaders and human rights activists in Colombia increased in the first half of the year compared to the first six months of 2019, despite a national quarantine to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published on Tuesday.

Between January and June this year, 81 social, political and community leaders were killed in Colombia, up from 61 in the first half of last year even though incidents of violence and attacks fell 2%, according to a study by local civil rights group the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE).

The report did not specify which armed groups were responsible for the murders, attacks and threats. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

The government accuses left-wing guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, ex-members of the FARC rebels who reject a 2016 peace deal and criminal groups of former right-wing paramilitaries of attacking activists as the groups seek to control drug trafficking and illegal mining areas.

Though the South American country of 50 million people had a national quarantine in place from late March until the end of August, violence in remote areas against social, political and community leaders did not let up, the report said.

The attacks have become one of the main challenges for the government of President Ivan Duque, with advocacy groups and critics in the international community calling for action.

"Local leaders continue to be victims of violence at the hands of armed groups and other actors who hold different economic, political, social and environmental interests," MOE director Alejandra Barrios said in the report. "If urgent measures for individual and collective protection are not taken, we will be left without democratic leadership."

Authorities said troops were being sent to restore calm to a rural part of Cauca province after six people were killed in an attack on Sunday that army Commander Marco Mayorga blamed on dissident FARC guerrillas.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra Writing by Oliver Griffin)

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