By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia by gangs fighting for spoils and control since the nation ended its decades-old civil war late last year, the United Nations said on Thursday, urging better protection for activists.
Armed groups are moving into territory being vacated by rebel fighters under an historic peace agreement signed in December by the Colombian government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the U.N. said.
At least 59 rights defenders were killed in Colombia last year, compared with 45 in 2014, the U.N. said in its annual human rights report released on Thursday.
Community leaders who speak out against rights abuses are targeted by armed groups, often involved in drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, who see the activism as a threat, it said.
The armed groups are moving into former rebel strongholds, fighting for territory and resources, the U.N. said.
"The FARC leaving is complicating the lives of leaders," said Todd Howland, head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia at a news conference.
"The state has an obligation to guarantee the protection of everyone," he said.
Colombia's Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said violence against rights defenders and securing control of former rebel territory could undermine the success of the peace accord.
"We're all interested in facing these threats and these murders because we know that it seriously affects the chances of consolidating peace in Colombia," Cristo said.
Violence, including death threats and killings, against human rights and land activists is most prevalent in rural areas, particularly along Colombia's impoverished Pacific coast and northern borders, Howland said.
"There's a fight to occupy these areas," he said.
Last year, 14 rights defenders were murdered in Colombia's western province of Cauca, a drug-producing area and former FARC stronghold, the highest number in the nation, the U.N. said.
Community leaders blame many of the murders on right-wing paramilitary groups angry over terms of the peace accord, especially those that allow the Marxist FARC rebels to rejoin society and form a political party.
The Interior Minister blamed a powerful drug-running crime group, the Gulf Clan, for violence along the Pacific coast.
The peace accord ended a 52-year war that killed some 200,000 people and displaced millions of others.
"We bet on peace, but there are enemies of peace," said Luis David Rincon, a community leader.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, 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, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)