Skip to comments.Colombia to Start Talks With Militia
Posted on 07/16/2003 12:01:05 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
ARAUCA, Colombia - An outlawed Colombian paramilitary group agreed to peace talks and promised to lay down its weapons by 2005, while the president symbolically moved the capital to a war zone to show that his government, not leftist rebels, controls the country.
The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, promised Tuesday to start demobilizing its 10,000 troops by the end of the year. The official peace negotiations come after a December cease-fire and six months of exploratory talks.
The AUC is an umbrella paramilitary group that is accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in Colombia's 39-year civil war. It arose in the 1980s to counter extortion and kidnappings by leftist rebels in rural areas where government troops had little or no control.
"I believe that this can contribute to the country laying down the foundation for peace," President Alvaro Uribe said from the city of Arauca, where he moved the capital for three days.
There was no immediate comment from the leftist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The FARC has said it would join peace talks, but has demanded a safe haven and other preconditions the government refuses to accept.
Officials said peace with the paramilitaries would take one important player out of the violence that have tormented Colombia's people since the civil war began. The United States has labeled both the UAC and the FARC terrorist organizations.
Luis Carlos Restrepo, the nation's peace commissioner, said he hoped peace talks with the AUC would prompt the leftist rebels - avowed enemies of the militia - to put down their arms as well.
"Taking away armed actors like the paramilitary fighters opens the way to an effective peace process" with the rebels, Restrepo told the CMI television program.
Leaders of the AUC said they wanted to help build the "authentic peace that the Colombian nation waits for and deserves."
The paramilitaries' statement was posted Tuesday on the president's official Web site and signed by paramilitary leaders and members of a government peace commission. Splinter paramilitary groups did not sign on.
All AUC fighters will put down their arms by the end of 2005, the statement said. The United States will help with the process.
The group agreed to maintain the December cease-fire and to stop trafficking drugs. Uribe's government promised to help the demobilized paramilitary fighters return to regular society.
The statement did not address the issue of legal action against top AUC leaders, some of whom face extradition requests from the United States to face drug trafficking charges.
Carlos Castano, Colombia's far-right warlord, talks with his fighters in a secret location at the Serrania of Abibe in northwestern Colombian mountains, in this September 5, 2002 file photo. Colombia's government and far-right paramilitary outlaws agreed on July 15, 2003 to start formal peace talks aimed at the complete demobilization of some 10,000 gunmen by the end of 2005.REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez/Files
AUC Chief Carlos Castano and two other paramilitary leaders were indicted last September for allegedly exporting 17 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe since 1997.
Castano also faces dozens of murder and massacre charges in Colombia.
Civilians in Arauca and elsewhere have often been victimized in the violence among the rebels, paramilitaries and government forces. The three-day move from the capital, Bogota, to an army base in Arauca on the border with Venezuela demonstrates "the solidarity of the nation" with its people, Uribe declared before leaving Bogota Tuesday morning.
"The president's visit is an act of support for the 300,000 people of Arauca who have been victims of the violence, but who nonetheless have not lost their desire to live on this land," said Arauca state Gov. Oscar Munoz.
The last time Uribe traveled to the region, in October, a rebel car bomb exploded in front of a school in the state capital just hours before Uribe arrived. Two police officers were killed, and a dozen other people wounded.
"I hope this visit doesn't bring more conflict," said Alejandro Rodriguez, 24, who works in a hardware store in Arauca city.
On Tuesday, residents stayed indoors, worried about the possible repercussions of Uribe's latest visit. Some 5,000 police officers and soldiers worked around the clock to secure the city, setting up roadblocks and stopping vehicles to help prevent potential attacks.
Helicopters circled over the heavily fortified army base, the site of the new. Cooks, secretaries and presidential aides flown in from Bogota hurriedly prepared the base for Uribe, who arrived Tuesday afternoon.
Other Cabinet members are scheduled to fly in to Arauca over the three-day period.
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