BOGOTA: Colombia's army announced it would modify instructions given to troops following an article in the New York Times that claimed a new policy could result in a greater number of civilians being killed in the battle against criminals and militants.
The article written by the Times' Andean bureau chief, Nicholas Casey, claimed that the head of Colombia's army had "ordered his troops to double the number of criminals and militants they kill, capture or force to surrender in battle - and possibly accept higher civilian casualties in the process".
That brought back uncomfortable memories of a controversial practice used by authorities between 2002 and 2008, under the government of then president Alvaro Uribe, when soldiers killed thousands of civilians and presented them as left-wing rebels in a bid to obtain bonuses or promotions.
"We have never demanded a number of dead, we've never done it and we never will. I've never demanded it," army commander General Nicacio Martinez told reporters.
"We're demanding effectiveness," he added, before saying there could have been "a misunderstanding" over what that meant by "people not part of the institution".
"We want to change the format to generate calm. As it has been misunderstood, it's better to change it," Martinez told the CM& news channel.
Casey's report sparked concern from Human Rights Watch whose director for the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco said "these practices suggest that the current Army and the Ministry of Defence have learned nothing from one of the darkest chapters in Colombia's history, that of false positives, which puts the civilian population at serious risk".
More than 3,000 people are believed to have been killed in that situation, according to Human Rights Watch. So far, 961 military staff have been prosecuted for the offense, official data shows.
President Ivan Duque's government described the Times article, which used anonymous sources, as "full of inconsistencies", but vowed a "zero tolerance" policy towards human rights abuses.
Maria Fernanda Cabal, a lawmaker from Duque's Democratic Center party, accused Casey - who has left Colombia - of being "paid" by FARC, the left-wing guerrilla group that laid down its arms in 2016 and formed a political party following a historic peace accord that ended a half century of bloody armed conflict.
The international press association in Colombia rejected the accusations against Casey, and demanded a "rectification".
Colombia, the world's leading producer of cocaine, suffered more than 50 years of bloodshed in fighting by guerrillas, paramilitaries, state agents and drug traffickers, with more than eight million people killed, missing and displaced.