Colombia's largest paramilitary group agreed to lay down weapons because of the government's success in retaking control of wide swaths of land from leftist rebels, a leader of the banned group said.
Speaking from a straw-thatched house in a small village of northwest Colombia, Salvatore Mancuso of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia praised hard-line President Alvaro Uribe for cracking down on rebels.
Mancuso's paramilitary group arose in the 1980s to counter extortion and kidnappings by rebels in areas where government troops had little or no control. The right-wing group is accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in the history of Colombia's 39-year civil war -- including massacring civilians it believed to be rebel collaborators.
"Before, the government didn't have the political will to defend institutions and Colombians," said Mancuso, who helped draft the document that launched official peace talks with the government on Tuesday.
"But President Uribe has demonstrated there is now a government that truly wants to create a democracy," Mancuso told the AP late Wednesday.
Mancuso defended the actions of paramilitary fighters, saying that at the time, there seemed to be no other option than to take up arms and defend themselves.
Twenty heavily armed men patrolled the area outside the house where Mancuso spoke as residents of the village lined up to meet with him to relay their problems.
The 38-year-old Mancuso, considered the military chief of the paramilitary group, is accused of murders and massacres in Colombia. Along with two other paramilitary leaders, he faces drug trafficking charges in the US.
Nonetheless, Mancuso said he hopes the Colombian government will find a legal mechanism to grant him freedom, as was done with leaders of former rebel groups that demobilized.
"We are not negotiating thinking that we are going to go to jail," said Mancuso, wearing, blue pants, tennis shoes and a gun holster.
Human rights activists, however, warn against granting the leaders impunity and US authorities have said they will continue seeking his extradition.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia has promised to demobilize its 13,000 troops by the end of 2005 and to turn over land it seized during the war. Mancuso said the group also wants to help civilians displaced by the violence return to their homes.
Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government's peace commissioner, estimates that it will cost about US$90 million a year to demobilize the paramilitary groups.
The president temporarily transferred the capital to the violence-ridden city of Arauca to prove the government is in control. Yet on Thursday, suspected rebels launched a grenade at a police station in the nearby town of Saravena, killing one person.
Authorities immediately detained a suspected rebel they said was guilty of the attack. It was unclear whether the person killed was another rebel or a civilian.
Two hours after Uribe left for Bogota, a car bomb exploded in Arauca, injuring two women, said police division commander Luis Alcides Morales. No arrests were made and police said the Toyota truck that blew up had Venezuelan plates.
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