November 29, 2002

Colombian militia declares cease-fire

AUC will stop all offensives against rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) --Colombia's largest right-wing paramilitary group will begin
a unilateral cease-fire on Sunday in its long-running battle against leftist rebels, the
group's leaders announced early Friday.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, said it has faith that the
government of President Alvaro Uribe is serious about cracking down on the
rebels, its arch-enemies.

So beginning Sunday, it will stop all offensives against the rebels and suspected
sympathizers, its leaders said in an official declaration posted on the group's
web site.

"We have taken the historic decision to declare a unilateral cease-fire with
national reach," stated an open letter to Uribe signed by AUC chief Carlos
Castano, military commander Salvatore Mancuso and other top AUC leaders.

The 12-point document clarifies that, under the cease-fire, members of the
militia group could still defend themselves against attacks by rebels.

Colombia's 38-year-old civil war pits leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or
ELN, against the government and paramilitary groups.

The paramilitaries arose in the 1980s as a vigilante force formed by drug
traffickers and ranchers trying to defend themselves against rebel kidnappers.
But rights groups say they have become increasingly brutal, and are now
responsible for most of the war's massacres of civilians.

Castano commands about 70 percent of all paramilitary fighters in the country.
The cease-fire could lead to the demobilization of at least 10,000 combatants,
Mancuso said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

All of Castano's forces except one -- a front commanding areas around
Medellin, Colombia's second largest city -- will participate in the cease-fire, the
letter said. Splinter paramilitary groups under other leaders won't participate.

Group asked Colombian government for protection

The paramilitary group asked the government to guarantee the security of those
living in areas occupied by AUC members, anticipating possible attacks by the

Uribe is a hard-liner who was elected on promises to crack down on the
rebels. Since taking office August 7, he has taken on special emergency powers
and imposed a new war tax.

"The time has come in which the Colombian government is demonstrating its
capacity and political will to immediately assume ... the defense and protection
of its people and territory," said the paramilitary statement.

"The government of Alvaro Uribe is strengthening institutions, and the rebels are
being exposed to the country and the international community for what they
are," Mancuso said in the AP interview.

Uribe confirmed Monday that his government sent officials to meet with
paramilitary leaders to try to end clashes between them and the army. Though
the paramilitaries mainly fight against the rebels, there have been some clashes
with government forces.

Also on the table: social investment, destroying drugs

Uribe has said his government won't negotiate with any of Colombia's armed
groups before a unilateral cease-fire is declared. The government also asked
the AUC to wipe out drug crops as part of any agreement, said a government
official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Castano accepted the demand, the source said. Since last year, the AUC
leader has been trying to steer his combatants away from drug trafficking and
massacres that put the AUC on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list.

Mancuso and Castano are both wanted in the United States on charges of drug

The AUC also asked the Colombian government for financing as it pulls out of
the fighting and drug trafficking trade, and requested intervention from UNICEF
to help with child soldiers fighting with the paramilitary groups.

"If we want lasting peace, it is crucial that we have social investment," Mancuso

Mancuso said the AUC leadership was ready to sit down with their rivals from
the FARC and the ELN at any time to discuss a peace accord.

They "no longer have an excuse to avoid starting serious negotiations right this
minute," Mancuso said.

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.