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Colombia military chief fired in scandal

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LIBARDO CARDONA | February 18, 2014 02:41 PM EST | AP

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's president fired his armed forces chief on Tuesday for verbally maligning prosecutors investigating military officers accused of ordering extrajudicial executions.

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

His defense minister announced a shakeup of the high command in which the current army chief, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, was promoted to 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.

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 a counterattack be mounted to discredit the officials involved.

Colombian soldiers have been convicted of nearly 900 extrajudicial slayings, dressing victims in fatigues and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat.

The killings occurred principally over a decade ending in 2008, when the scandal broke open and 27 officers were fired. President Santos was defense 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 just hours after the resignation of the army's former head of aviation, whose name was mentioned in hundreds of hours of recordings that Semana said it obtained.

The scandal is the second to shake Colombia's military this month.

The first, 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 that the scandals could hurt peace talks that 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 had been brought to light with Santos' authorization.

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 and among members of the military establishment who have been allied with them.

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Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.