Colombia killings of social leaders hit record in 2022 -ombudsman

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia witnessed killings of 215 social leaders and human rights activists in 2022, the highest toll ever recorded, as illegal armed groups intensified their attacks in key drug-trafficking areas, the government's human rights ombudsman said on Monday.

The number of killed human rights activists and social leaders - a term referring to community, land, and environmental leaders, among others - rose from 145 in 2021 and 182 in 2020, the ombudsman said in a statement.

"It's a serious impact on the basis of democracy, because these are leaders who take up the concerns of the people, who are spokespersons and who work for a country where human rights are respected," ombudsman Carlos Camargo said in a statement.

Violence against social leaders and civilians, is a major issue in Colombia and successive governments have faced calls to from the international community and non-governmental organizations to do more.

Despite President Gustavo Petro's push for peace across the country, assaults on social leaders and human rights defenders continued after he took office in August, with 82 killed in the last five months of the year.

Petro wants to end Colombia's almost six decades of internal armed conflict, which left at least 450,000 dead between 1985 and 2018.

His government began peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group in Venezuela in November and wants to implement a 2016 peace deal with dissident factions of the now-demobilized FARC guerrillas who reject the agreement.

The government also hopes to bring criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking to justice, offering incentives such as reduced sentences for those who surrender.

It also declared a bilateral ceasefire over the new year with two FARC dissident groups, criminal group Clan del Golfo, and paramilitaries in Colombia's Sierra Nevada region.

"We hope the start of talks with the ELN and the ceasefire with other illegal armed groups, will lead to decreased attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders," the ombudsman said.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)