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 ages 8 to 10 dead last week.
Immediately after the children were gunned down 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 gun battle.
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 to the resort port of Cartagena on Aug. 30.
During the next few days, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is to certify whether Colombia has met several human rights conditions to be eligible to receive the military component of a new $1.3 billion aid program designed to combat drug trafficking in two southern provinces dominated by Marxist guerrillas.
If Albright does not certify Colombia, Clinton can grant the country a national security waiver to release the aid. A halt in aid, which Clinton administration officials say is vital to slowing the flow of Colombian cocaine to the United States, is considered highly unlikely.
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 been sent to the village of Pueblo Rico to examine the bodies. Several other children were wounded.
Four of the children killed were on a school hiking trip from the village of La Pica. Two others were people 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, the country's second-largest rebel group best known for kidnappings and bombing oil pipelines. Francisco Galan, a spokesman for the group, denied his forces were near the combat.
The shootings have been harshly criticized by human rights activists in Colombia and abroad.