A woman waves a Colombian national flag during an anti-government protest

Cali (Colombia) (AFP) - The international community has condemned security forces’ violent repression of protests in Colombia after numerous deaths, while urging calm ahead of large anti-government rallies planned for Wednesday.

The United Nations, United States, European Union and rights bodies joined a chorus of criticism on Tuesday after official data showed 19 people were killed and 846 injured in running clashes with the security officers.

Colombia’s human rights ombudsman – a state agency independent from the government – said 89 people were listed as “disappeared.”

The protests began last week, initially in opposition to a proposed tax hike. But they have since morphed into a broader movement against the government of President Ivan Duque and inequality worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Looting, vandalism and attacks on police kiosks have been reported, while the UN human rights office (OHCHR) expressed “profound shock” on Tuesday after officers allegedly opened fire on demonstrators overnight in Cali, Colombia’s third-biggest city and the epicenter of the unrest.

“What we can say clearly is that we have received reports, and we have witnesses, (of) excessive use of force by security officers, shooting, live ammunition being used, beatings of demonstrators and as well detentions,” OHCHR spokeswoman Marta Hurtado told reporters in Geneva.

A local security official said five people died in Cali overnight and 33 people were injured.

Demonstrators protest against a tax reform proposed by Colombian President Ivan Duque's government

“Given the extremely tense situation, with soldiers as well as police officers deployed to police the protest, we call for calm,” Hurtado added on the eve of a “massive demonstration” expected Wednesday.

She urged security forces to use firearms only as a last resort when facing an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

The Ministry of Defense has deployed 47,500 uniformed personnel countrywide. In Cali alone, 700 soldiers, 500 riot police officers, 1,800 other police and two helicopters have been put into operation.

- ‘Brutal’ escalation -

By nightfall Tuesday, fresh havoc was already being wreaked on the capital where dozens of people attacked police stations.

“The violent escalation tonight is brutal,” Bogota mayor Claudia Lopez tweeted.

She added that police had been shot and wounded with knives, and one station was set on fire while officers were inside.

The government secretariat tweeted that 16 stations had been vandalized.

Riot police officers ride past army tanks on the outskirts of Bogota on May 4, 2021

Earlier, Lopez had urged protesters to record “what is happening in the street” to prevent abuses, after her request for police to stop using rubber bullets against demonstrators was rejected.

In several parts of the country, roadblocks were erected, causing concern for deliveries of oxygen and other medical supplies as the country grapples with its latest surge of the coronavirus.

South America’s football governing body, CONMEBOL, meanwhile announced that three games that were to be played this week in Colombia as part of the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana competitions have been moved to Paraguay as a result of the ongoing unrest.

- Call for restraint -

Riot police clash with demonstrators in Medellin, on April 28, 2021

Duque’s government has officially acknowledged just one civilian and one police death, and blames violence on armed groups operating in the country.

“Nothing justifies armed people who, protected by the legitimate desires of citizens to march, go out to shoot defenseless citizens and cruelly attack our police,” said Duque, who on Sunday withdrew the proposed tax reform that sparked the protests.

Three uniformed officers have been shot since the demonstrations began.

Defense Minister Diego Molano said the violence was “systematic, premeditated and financed by criminal organizations.”

“Our public forces must be ruthless towards those who use vandalism,” the minister warned.

The European Union on Tuesday condemned the reported deaths – 18 civilians and a police officer.

EU spokesman Peter Stano said it was a priority to stop the escalation of violence “and to avoid any disproportionate use of force by security forces.”

US State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter underlined the right of all people to protest peacefully.

“Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life,” she said.

The anti-government protests come at a time of economic despair for many, fueled by the global coronavirus crisis.

In its worst performance in half a century, Colombia’s GDP shrank 6.8 percent in 2020, and unemployment stood at 16.8 percent in March.

Almost half the population lives in poverty, according to official figures.