The Miami Herald
Jul. 18, 2003

Colombian Paramilitary Group Holsters Arms

  Associated Press

  IN THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHWEST COLOMBIA - 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 to The Associated Press late Wednesday 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 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 United States.

  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 a white shirt, blue pants, tennis shoes and a gun holster.

  Human rights activists, however, warn against granting the leaders impunity, and U.S. authorities have said they will continue seeking his extradition.

  "Extradition is something that, at the appropriate time, we will have to handle with the government of the United States," he said.

  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 $90 million a year to demobilize the paramilitary groups.

  Uribe, speaking from an army base where he transferred the seat of government for three days, called on members of the international community to help support the
  demobilization. He asked the United Nations to monitor the process.

  The president temporarily transferred the capital to the violence-ridden city of Arauca to prove the government is in control. But Thursday, suspected rebels launched a
  grenade at a police station in the nearby town of Saravena, killing one person and wounding six others, police said.

  Authorities immediately detained a suspect. It was unknown whether the victim was a rebel or 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.

  During a town hall meeting in Arauca, the government announced that a political referendum will be held Oct. 25, a day before Colombians vote for governors and mayors.

  The referendum aims to freeze public-sector salaries for two years, cut pension payments and reduce the size of Congress.

  Splinter paramilitary groups did not sign on to the agreement to disarm. But Mancuso said he was confident they would not threaten the peace process.

  "I think that those who haven't already signed on to the process are going to, and that those who don't will probably disappear as the state forces recover territory," he

  Mancuso appeared exhausted after days of negotiations with the government peace commission and meetings of his paramilitary group. Though content with the peace
  declaration, which came after six months of exploratory talks, Mancuso said there was still much to be done.

  "This is just the first step in a long and difficult process," he said.

  The conflict kills some 3,500 people annually, mostly civilians.