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Colombia vows to probe killing of 6 schoolchildren

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BOGOTA, Colombia — In a test of its commitment to improving its human rights record, the Colombian government has promised a full-scale investigation of an army attack on an elementary school hiking trip that left six children between ages 8 and 10 dead last week.

Immediately after the children were gunned down on Tuesday, top commanders of the army publicly blamed guerrillas involved in Colombia's long-running insurgencies for the deaths, saying that rebels were using the children as human shields in a gunbattle. But throughout the week, various witnesses came forward to say that there were no rebels near the scene of the shooting, in a coffee field in northwestern Colombia.

The episode came at a particularly embarrassing moment for President Andres Pastrana, who is preparing for President Clinton's six-hour visit in the resort port of Cartagena Aug. 30.

The government has announced that it is investigating 25 soldiers and officers of the army's 4th Division in the shootings of the children and says that 43 investigators of three government agencies have been put on the case. Forensic specialists have already been sent to the village of Pueblo Rico to examine the bodies. Several other children were also wounded.

Four of the children killed were on a school hiking trip from the village of La Pica. Two others were residents who lived in the coffee fields where the shooting took place.

Government officials insist that the killings were not intentional. "The only option we can definitely rule out is that Colombian soldiers would have fired intentionally on the children," said Attorney General Alfonso Gomez Mendez.

Army officials said the incident occurred as units of two army battalions were chasing rebels of the National Liberation Army. Francisco Galan, a spokesman for the group, denied his forces were anywhere near the combat.