Youths were present, the defense minister said, calling them “machines of war,” but he would not give the ages of the dead. Reports that minors were killed outraged a war-weary public.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s defense minister said Wednesday that several young people were at a rebel camp recently attacked by the military, but would not confirm reports that children were among those killed, an allegation that fueled deep outrage in a nation reeling from decades of war.
In an interview on W Radio, the minister, Diego Molano, said that “young combatants,” who had been recruited and transformed into “machines of war” by criminal actors, were present at a military operation meant to target a violent armed group.
But he declined repeatedly to reveal the ages of the dead, amid reports from local officials and news outlets that one or more of those killed were minors, including a 9-year-old girl. In the interview, Mr. Molano called that information “illegitimate” and part of a “political war to give information that sought to delegitimize our military.” On the program, the host read out the names of those reported dead in local news reports.
The accusations instantly resonated in a nation scarred by decades of brutal internal war involving the U.S.-backed government, left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and powerful drug cartels — fighting that frequently included child combatants and claimed many civilian casualties. Today, the country is divided over a 2016 peace deal that sought to put an end to that era, but has had only limited success.
On Wednesday morning, the Colombian military announced it had killed 12 people in a military operation that targeted the “criminal structure” of an armed group run by Miguel Botache, known by the alias Gentil Duarte, a former member of Colombia’s largest rebel group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, officially ending the war between the two sides. But some rebels, including Mr. Duarte, abandoned the peace deal and returned to arms.
As the FARC has pulled out of vast swaths of territory, other violent groups have moved in, turning many communities into battlegrounds between the military, old and new rebel groups, and paramilitaries. For many in Colombia, the war has not ended.
President Iván Duque has been the subject of growing criticism that he is not doing enough to stop the violence.
In late 2019, his former defense minister, Guillermo Botero, left his position after failing to disclose that several children died during a military raid on a criminal group.
In the radio interview, Mr. Molano said that the most recent operation, which took place on March 2 in the department of Guaviare, fell within the bounds of international law. He blamed the leaders of armed groups for the deaths.
“We’re not talking about young people who didn’t know what they were doing,” he said of those who join such groups.
“Who is responsible for the recruitment, for converting them into machines of war?” he added. “It’s those organizations, not the national army.”
Those comments drew immediate criticism from several sectors of Colombian society, who said that young people recruited by armed groups should be treated as victims, not perpetrators.
The country has been consumed for decades in a conversation about how to deal with child recruitment.
“They are not combatants but victims of war,” wrote Diego Cancino, a councilman in Bogotá, the capital, on Twitter. “Minister Diego Molano, you can’t justify the unjustifiable.”
Sofía Villamil contributed reporting.
© The New York Times 2021