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Colombia's president fires chief of military for maligning human rights investigations

The new Colombian armed forces commander Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, right, talks to newly appointed chief of staff Gen. Javier Florez, left, and army commander Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, center, after a press conference where Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon announced the firing of the fromer armed forces chief Gen. Leonardo Barrero in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Gen. Barrero was fired for verbally maligning prosecutors investigating extrajudicial executions. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

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The new Colombian armed forces commander Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, right, talks to newly appointed chief of staff Gen. Javier Florez, left, and army commander Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, center, after a press conference where Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon announced the firing of the fromer armed forces chief Gen. Leonardo Barrero in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Gen. Barrero was fired for verbally maligning prosecutors investigating extrajudicial executions. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA - Colombia's president fired his armed forces chief Tuesday for verbally maligning and suggesting action be taken against prosecutors investigating military officers accused in extrajudicial killings of civilians.

President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters that Gen. Leonardo Barrero was being relieved for "disrespectful remarks" against the judiciary and nation in a phone conversation published over the weekend.

Santos' defence minister later announced that the current army chief, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, would replace Barrero.

The conversation that cost Barrero his job was recorded by prosecutors investigating graft by senior officers in allegedly inflated military contracts and was revealed by the newsmagazine Semana.

Santos made it clear that Barrero was not being fired for corruption, although four generals, including the army's second highest-ranking officer, were forcibly retired Tuesday in connection with the contracts scandal.

In one recording, Barrero is heard telling a colonel jailed in an extrajudicial killings case that such prosecutions are "a bunch of crap" and suggesting that he and others "organize a mafia" to discredit the officials involved.

Colombian soldiers, the vast majority enlisted men, have been convicted of nearly 900 extrajudicial slayings, dressing victims in fatigues and falsely presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat.

The victims in the cases, known as "false positives," were mostly down-on-their luck men lured to their deaths with bogus job promises. They were slain to boost the body count of supposed rebels killed in Colombia's long-running conflict.

The killings occurred principally over the decade ending in 2008, when the scandal broke open and 27 officers were fired, three of them generals. Santos was defence minister then.

The graft investigation that Semana reported on grew out of a probe into extrajudicial killings, Jorge Perdomo, the No. 2 official in the chief prosecutor's office, said Monday.

Hours earlier, the army's former head of aviation had retired. His name was among those mentioned in hundreds of hours of recordings that Semana said it obtained.

The magazine's cover story said some of the money allegedly skimmed from military procurement contracts benefited officers facing criminal prosecution in "false positives" cases.

The scandal is the second this month to shake Colombia's military, which has received strong U.S. backing in training, technology and intelligence for well over a decade that has helped it weaken leftist rebels.

The first scandal, also disclosed by Semana, involved spying by an elite army cyber-unit on the email and text messages of government negotiators in peace talks with Colombia's main leftist rebel movement to end a 50-year-old conflict, the last of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Opposition lawmakers complained the scandals could hurt the peace talks, which began in November 2012 and which Santos hopes to complete after winning re-election in a May vote.

But one former senior military officer, retired air force chief Hector Fabio Velasco, said Tuesday that he had no doubt this month's scandals were brought to light with Santos' authorization.

The president of Congress, Juan Fernando Cristo, said he thought Barrero's ouster would strengthen the government's hand in peace talks because "it reaffirms the leadership of President Santos in the face of the military."

Resistance to an eventual peace pact with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has been strong among cattle ranchers who fear losing land to agrarian reform, as well as some military officers allied with them.

___

Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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