By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia must move swiftly to implement a new peace accord signed between the government and rebels to stop armed groups filling power vacuums and committing human rights violations amid the fragile ceasefire, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Colombia's government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a revised peace agreement over the weekend to end 52 years of war, after the original accord was narrowly rejected in a referendum last month by voters who regarded it as too lenient toward the rebels.
While a decision on how the new accord will be approved has not yet been made, some 7,000 rebel fighters have gathered in various designated areas where they are expected to hand in their weapons once the new deal has been ratified.
"The FARC is grouping together, but this is leaving behind vacuums of power," Todd Howland, head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia, told reporters in Bogota.
"When there are delays with the implementation of the accord, this means human rights violations," he said.
Other armed groups, including those composed of former right-wing paramilitaries, common criminals and rebel dissident fighters, are moving in to replace the FARC and fighting over the spoils and territorial control, Howland said.
"This is generating violence," he said.
Criminal groups are involved in drug trafficking, illegal gold and silver mining and extortion rackets, experts say.
As they move into former FARC strongholds, communities find themselves in the line of fire, particularly those along Colombia's impoverished Pacific coast, Howland said.
At least 21 human rights and land activists, mostly from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, have been killed across the country this year by criminal groups, the U.N. said.
"A significant proportion of the killings are related to the peace process," Howland said. "This (peace process) can't go on forever."
Peace talks began four years ago to end a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people. Some seven million people have been forcibly driven from their homes by warring factions.
Earlier this week government peace negotiator Sergio Jaramillo sounded a note of urgency after two rebels were killed in combat in northern Colombia, the first time the bilateral ceasefire between the two sides has been broken.
"We have a serious situation on the ground, an unstable situation, a guerrilla group made up of thousands of men waiting to see what's going to happen," Jaramillo told local media on Wednesday.
Leyner Palacios, from the jungle town of Bojaya in western Colombia which has borne the brunt of guerrilla violence, said he and other war victims clamour for peace and are deeply worried the ceasefire could unravel further.
"The ceasefire is fragile. We are very concerned that at any moment things can flare up again," Palacios, a community leader, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Every month that goes by without the peace accord not implemented is like a century for us. Our community is a risk," he said.
A decision on how the new accord will be approved will come after meetings with lawmakers, which are expected soon, Colombia's Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said this week.
The law does not require President Juan Manuel Santos to hold a new referendum on the revised peace accord, and it is likely he could try to ratify it through Congress.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)