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Colombia Gov’t, Warlords Begin Peace Talks

July 2, 2004

SANTA FE DE RALITO, Colombia (AP) _ The leader of Colombia’s most powerful paramilitary group began peace talks with the government Thursday, saying his group was ready to disarm and turn itself into a legal political party.

But Salvatore Mancuso, the supreme commander of the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, made no mention of his group’s involvement in drug trafficking and cease-fire violations _ including last week’s brief kidnapping of a former senator.

The anti-guerrilla group has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s civil war.

``The Colombian people deserve peace,″ Mancuso said during a ceremony in this rural safe haven granted for the negotiations, some 220 miles northwest of Bogota. ``We the paramilitaries don’t want to move toward the dissolution of our organization, but the transformation into a mass political movement,″ he said.

Wearing a white open-neck shirt instead of his usual combat fatigues, Mancuso sat alongside nine other warlords who make up the AUC’s high command, Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt and other government officials under a blue tent.

Foreign diplomats and representatives of international organizations were notably absent from the ceremony amid concern over continued paramilitary atrocities.

Although 700 invitations were sent out, no European country or the United Nations sent delegates. The United States sent a ``senior diplomat,″ but declined to name him.

The talks are aimed at demobilizing at least 12,000 fighters in the AUC by 2006.

The path to peace is fraught with obstacles, including deepening drug trafficking, persistent killings and kidnappings and little international involvement.

The most recent hurdle was cleared late Wednesday when former Sen. Jose Eduardo Gnecco was released.

Uribe had stripped two paramilitary leaders of immunity granted for the negotiations but restored it after the release.

Some 3,500 people are killed each year in the war, which pits leftist rebels against the paramilitary factions and government forces. The paramilitaries were started by wealthy ranchers in the 1980s to combat Marxist rebels.

Mancuso embarked on a long defense of the AUC’s actions, saying the Colombian state had for decades failed to protect its own people from Marxist rebel attacks.

``Colombia wants a state ... that will not abandon us again, either in peace or war,″ he said.

The disarmament process came about largely due to President Alvaro Uribe’s decision to boost military spending and wage all-out war on Colombia’s two leftist rebel groups.

Uribe has set a six-month time limit to reach a deal with the paramilitaries, a cornerstone of his efforts to pacify Colombia after 40 years of civil war.

``The AUC agreed to a cease-fire, which was a condition for the start of the talks and that’s why the government is here,″ Pretelt told reporters after arriving by helicopter. ``I have a lot of faith in this process ... and I believe the paramilitaries are willing to make peace.″

The United States has labeled the AUC a terrorist organization and most of the group’s leaders, including Mancuso, are sought by the U.S. Justice Department on drug-related charges.

International support is crucial if the talks are to succeed, since Colombia alone would be unable to foot the $120 million bill to reinsert fighters into society.

The key sticking point will likely be the fate of Mancuso and the other paramilitary leaders, who have made clear they don’t want to go to jail for any of the thousands of killings, massacres, kidnappings and other crimes their troops allegedly committed as they sought to put down the leftist insurgency.

Human rights groups argue that is unacceptable.

``The Colombian government is sitting at the table with some of the worst war criminals in the Western Hemisphere,″ said Roxanna Altholz of the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law. ``These people cannot be amnestied from human rights violations.″

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