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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ In a best-selling ``kill and tell'' biography, the fugitive founder of a paramilitary group confesses to dozens of assassinations, riveting and repulsing Colombians with bloody details of his ``dirty war'' against leftist guerrillas.

Carlos Castano gives his version of the rise of the brutal United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, from origins in the 1980s into a nationwide force that has become a major player in Colombia's 38-year civil war.

He also defends the AUC's campaign of killings _ including of noncombatants _ saying it is necessary to save Colombia from leftist guerrillas. The AUC is considered a terrorist organization by Washington, but it has operated with the support of rogue members of the country' U.S.-backed security forces.

``Wars are never clean, and never can be,'' Castano says.

The booming sales of ``My Confession'' may reflect both morbid curiosity among some Colombian readers and a desire to understand the main actors in the civil war. But they seem also to be showing the growing popularity of Castano and the AUC.

``It terrifies me,'' said Mauricio Aranguren, the Colombian journalist whose interviews with Castano are the basis for the book. ``There are many people out there who see him their leader, their idol, and their savior.''

In the book, published in December, Castano recounts with page-turning detail his participation in dozens of assassinations.

It describes the key event that set the then-teenaged Castano on his path to become a right-wing warlord: the kidnapping of his father by rebels, who then killed the man even though the family had paid a ransom.

Castano and his older brother Fidel spent years tracking down every person they believed to have taken part in the kidnapping.

He describes chasing one suspected guerrilla member into his home in a rural town and emptying a fully-loaded pistol into the rebel's face. Castano, who's now 37, says it was the first time he'd killed with his own hands.

What began as personal vengeance turned into a nationwide anti-guerrilla crusade, intersecting along the way with Colombia's violent drug wars.

The book's most startling revelation is Castano's confession to ordering and planning the 1990 assassination of a charismatic leftist presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, who was gunned down on an airliner. The killing has been one of Colombia's big unsolved mysteries.

``Pizarro had to die,'' Castano declares. He claims Pizarro had become beholden to drug traffickers.

Based on another confession in the book, prosecutors last month opened a criminal case against Castano for the 1999 killing of a university professor. Castano says he ordered anthropologist Hernan Henao's death after intercepting phone calls between him and a FARC leader.

It's not clear why Castano is confessing. Not for money, apparently. Aranguren says only he and the publisher share in the profits.

Some say the militia leader may be trying, somehow, to rehabilitate his bloodstained image.

``By confessing, he can portray himself as a human being who made mistakes but also had a reason for doing the things he did,'' Aranguren said.

``Castano has internalized the idea that he is saving the country and that his actions are legitimate,'' said former Interior Minister Fernando Cepeda. ``It's a crusade.''

In the book, Castano confirms previous reports that he and his brother led a hit squad that worked secretly with the Colombian government to track down and kill Medellin cocaine cartel leader Pablo Escobar in 1993.

The book, whose cover features a photo of the steely-eyed militia chief in camouflage fatigues, sold 35,000 copies in its first few weeks, 10 times what an average book sells in three or four months, according to its publisher. Pirated copies are selling fast on street corners in the capital. Guerrillas have recently been seen leafing through copies _ to bone up on the enemy, they say.

How deep the sympathy runs in Colombia for Castano and the outlawed AUC is hard to judge. However, a nationwide poll this month gave the AUC 13 percent popular support, its highest level ever, compared to just 3 percent for the country's main rebel group.

But many readers are repulsed by Castano and his methods.

Ruth Sarria, a housewife who was buying the book at a Bogota shopping mall, recoiled when asked whether that meant she supported the AUC.

``Not at all,'' she said. ``They are just like the guerrillas. But as Colombians we have a responsibility to know whom we are dealing with.''