Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Uribe pushes peace in Colombia

NEGOTIATIONS The president said the government's overture to hold talks with the right-wing paramilitaries should serve as an example to leftist rebel groups

AFP , ARAUCA, COLOMBIA

Colombian marines patrol aboard a high-speed boat along the Arauca River before the arrival of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in Arauca city, Tuesday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said an agreement to start formal peace talks with right-wing paramilitaries was a step closer to peace and hoped leftist rebel groups would take the cue.

"It's peace, or else. Either they negotiate or we defeat them, but we'll have peace. We must get out of this nightmare of violence," Uribe told reporters late Tuesday during a visit to the war-torn eastern province of Arauca.

His comments followed an announcement earlier in the day that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, had agreed to demobilize their 10,000 fighters by the end of 2005.

In a statement signed by Uribe's peace commissioner Carlos Restrepo and the two top AUC leaders, the Colombian government also "agrees to help incorporate (AUC members) into the civilian life."

The agreement paves the way for formal peace talks between the AUC -- the largest paramilitary umbrella organization in Colombia -- and the Uribe administration.

Uribe said the agreement was "a step toward peace and the restoration of human rights" in Colombia. He said the peace process "must be carried out with the help of the international community."

The paramilitaries are the sworn enemies of two other of Colombia's irregular forces, the 17,000-strong leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army.

Washington considers all three groups to be terrorist organizations.

Human rights groups have blamed all three groups for violations, but especially singles out the AUC for committing some of the worst atrocities and massacres in the country's lengthy war.

The previous government of president Andres Pastrana held lengthy but ultimately fruitless peace negotiations with FARC leaders, which broke down in February last year.

Uribe said he hoped the agreement with the AUC would encourage a similar move by leftist rebels. "You have to bet on peace," he added.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in Colombia's nearly 40-year-old civil war.

A major issue to be thrashed out during the peace talks with the AUC is the fate of its two top leaders, Caslos Castano and Salvador Mancuso.

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