Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Paramilitaries start peace talks to end Colombian conflict

REUTERS , SANTA FE DE RALITO, COLOMBIA

Colombia's far-right paramilitary warlords and the government begin formal peace talks yesterday aimed at ending one facet of the Western hemisphere's longest-running war.

About 10 bosses of the 20,000-strong Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a vigilante army known as AUC that targets Marxist rebels and is accused of many human rights abuses, will take part in the talks.

Although militia leaders and government envoys have been talking in secret since July last year, the carefully orchestrated ceremony in Santa Fe de Ralito in northern Colombia marks the first time the two sides will take their peace process public.

The AUC commanders, armed with government safe-conduct promises and assurances they will not be extradited to the US -- where some are wanted on drug charges -- will remain within a 368km2 rural zone monitored by observers from the Organization of American States (OAS).

Reaching a peace accord with the paramilitaries is central to President Alvaro Uribe's strategy to end a four-decade-old guerrilla war that claims thousands of lives each year.

The demobilization of the paramilitaries would remove from the equation a well-armed private army which has swollen in size in recent years thanks to its links with drugs.

The year-old negotiations to demobilize AUC fighters by 2006 has been marked by broken cease-fires. The warlords insist that immunity from jail time be a condition of any settlement, a demand which has outraged human rights groups.

Hours before the talks were due to start, a warlord freed a former senator who had been kidnapped over the weekend, removing a last-minute obstacle which had threatened to derail yesterday's ceremony.

"The hour of truth for the [paramilitaries] has arrived," said Sergio Caramagna, OAS representative. Caramagna warned a settlement could be far off and that difficulties would arise.

Critics blame the AUC, dubbed "terrorists" by Washington, for some of the worst abuses in Colombia.

They say paramilitaries -- which have roots in militias set up by drug lords and cattle ranchers to fight rebels and have often worked with sectors of the military -- have killed thousands of peasants they suspected of sympathizing with rebels.

Highlighting deep misgivings about a peace process human rights activists dismiss as a travesty, few foreign ambassadors are expected to attend despite being invited by Uribe.

In an interview this week, US Ambassador William Wood said he believed the paramilitaries were more interested in "narco-terrorism" than in peace. "We are sceptical about the peace process," Wood said.

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