Colombia's main leftist rebel group said Tuesday that it "executed" eight Indians in the country's remote southwest, accusing them of acting as paid informants for Colombia's military.
The communique posted on a Web site sympathetic to the rebels followed widespread but unconfirmed reports that as many as 27 Awa Indians had been killed — allegations that prompted denunciations by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.
The development was a major blow to efforts by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to promote a prisoner swap with the government and to be removed from the European Union's list of terror organizations.
President Alvaro Uribe said offensive operations would be stepped up against the FARC. "Our decision today is to accentuate our anti-terrorism policies," he said in Brazil, where he was on a state visit.
Colombia's military challenged the rebel justification for the killings, denying the slain Indians had been informants, and alleging the FARC was pushing the Awa off their lands so it could plant drug crops.
There are about 20,000 Awa, and like many indigenous groups, they have often become enmeshed in a conflict in which far-right militias and drug traffickers frequently exact violence on civilians they accuse of collaborating with their foes.
The FARC said the eight were detained on Feb. 6 in a rural district of Barbacoas, Narino state, and all confessed to having worked with the army for two years.
"Given the pressure of the operation, their responsibility in the death of numerous guerrillas and their irrefutable active participation in the conflict, they were executed," the statement on the ANNCOL site said.
The country's armed forces chief called the guerrilla claim false.
"Not a single peso has been paid" to the Awa — nor were the Indians used as informants about rebel movements, Gen. Freddy Padilla told The Associated Press by telephone.
In a separate communique, the army division that operates in the area accused the FARC of forcing the Awa off their reserve so it can plant coca, the basis for cocaine.
Fighting over coca crops is a key reason behind the forced displacement of more than 2.8 million Colombians — an internal refugee problem second only to that of Sudan.
The FARC has tried to improve its international image and recently released six hostages, an act peace activists saw as a hopeful indication that a dialogue with Uribe's government might be opened.
The opposition senator who brokered the release, Piedad Cordoba, on Tuesday called the FARC's killing of the Indians "a major snag" for efforts to obtain new releases or a prisoner swap.
She said she feared it would radicalize both sides of the conflict.
The U.N. says Colombia has 87 indigenous groups, more than a third of which are at risk of extinction due largely to the conflict and forced displacement.