|Colombian army accused of murder after U.S. praise|
BOGOTA, Colombia, March 1 (Reuters) - A Catholic priest and a former mayor accused Colombian troops of killing eight villagers, including a six-year-old girl and two-year-old boy, for helping Marxist rebels, just as the United States said its key South American ally has improved its human rights record.
The priest and the former mayor accused the army of killing the villagers in the jungle town of San Jose de Apartado on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22.
A six year-old girl and a two-year-old boy were among those killed by machete blows and gunshots, as well as Luis Eduardo Guerra, a leader of the community set up by peasants fleeing violence in the 1990s, according to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.
"What we saw showed the mark of the 17th Brigade, which was operating in the area and seized family groups and killed them in groups," said Gloria Cuartas, who became a national figure as mayor of the nearby town of Apartado in the 1990s when she accused the army of collaborating with far-right paramilitary death squads.
A Roman Catholic priest in the area, Javier Giraldo, said on Monday that soldiers had carried out the killings and cut one man to pieces in front of his family, accusing him of aiding Marxist rebels.
A preliminary report by state prosecutors quoted by local television said the victims could have been killed either by soldiers, by far-right paramilitaries or even by rebels.
The accusations came as Colombia tries to convince the international community it has improved its human rights record so it can obtain financial aid for peace talks with far-right paramilitaries, aimed at demobilizing 20,000 militiamen.
"What we would hope is that the investigation is conducted promptly and in an impartial manner," said Maria McFarland, an investigator for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
"It's not clear yet who the perpetrators were," she told Reuters.
In a report on Monday, the U.S. State Department said Colombia was making progress on human rights, despite a four-decade guerrilla war which claimed 3,000-4,000 lives in 2004.
"The Government's respect for human rights improved in some areas," the State Department said, although it added: "however some members of the security forces continued to commit serious abuses, including unlawful and extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances."
The United States has provided Colombia with about $3 billion in mainly military aid since 2000 to fight its cocaine industry, Marxist rebels and the paramilitaries.
Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, no relation of President Alvaro Uribe, denied troops were responsible for the killings in San Jose de Apartado.
"The Colombian armed forces are confident they weren't involved in these abuses and crimes and is providing all possible help to the state prosecution service and the inspector general to solve these crimes," the minister said.
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