By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Colombians risk being forced from their homes amid renewed violence after the expiry of a ceasefire between the country's ELN rebel group and the government, the United Nations and aid groups warned on Monday.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) leftist guerrilla group and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos have been in formal peace talks for nearly a year, but the rebels launched a fresh offensive last week, killing members of the security forces, after the expiration of a 101-day ceasefire.
"We are worried about new displacements along the whole Pacific Coast where we have seen a lot of new displacements in 2017," Jozef Merkx, head of the United Nation's refugee agency, UNHCR, in Colombia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Colombia's western Pacific coast, a poor, underdeveloped rainforest area, has long been a hotspot of violence as criminal gangs and armed groups, including the ELN, fight for territorial control.
The ELN fighters and criminal gangs are moving into areas once controlled by Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
A historic peace accord signed between the government and FARC in 2016 has left a vacuum of power in some areas.
The number of Colombians uprooted from their homes in large groups - more than 50 at any one time - rose by 10 percent in 2017 to about 15,400 people compared to 2016, Merkx said. Overall, nearly 115,000 Colombians were displaced by violence last year, according to government figures.
During Colombia's half-century civil war, more than 7 million Colombians have been driven from their homes to escape violence by warring factions, one of the highest displaced populations in the world.
Amid the fresh fighting, most at risk of displacement are Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities along the Pacific western coast and in remote rural areas in Colombia's south.
"It's crucial to de-escalate the fighting, so that thousands of people are no longer displaced from their homes and civilians killed," said Christian Visnes, the Norwegian Refugee Council's country director in Colombia.
At the end of a visit to Colombia on Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, also called on Colombia's ELN rebels to lay down their weapons.
Colombians are also being forced from their homes by powerful organized crime involved in drug trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Last week, the government launched the largest military unit of 9,000 troops activated in two decades to combat illegal armed groups that have begun to seize areas once controlled by the rebels in Colombia's south and Pacific region.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; 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)
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