Saturday, November 30, 2002

More paramilitaries may join Colombia cease-fire

                  BOGO TA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Dissident paramilitary groups plan to
                  join a unilateral cease-fire called by Colombia's largest far-right militia,
                  the AUC, broadening the scope of possible future peace talks with the

                  The office of the government's chief peace envoy told Reuters on Saturday it had received a
                  letter from two paramilitary blocs in the country's northeast, declaring their intent to halt military
                  offensives starting Thursday.

                  Should it be confirmed, the move by an estimated 1,500 fighters would add extra force to the
                  December 1 cease-fire declared by the country's larger 10,000-member United Self Defense
                  Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC.

                  It would leave only a small fraction of paramilitaries in action, perhaps less than 2,000 fighters
                  in northwest and central Colombia.

                  The brutal methods employed by the paramilitaries, who kill rebels and suspected rebel
                  sympathizers, have made them international pariahs. They are blamed for some of the worst
                  atrocities in Colombia's 38-year-old guerrilla war and are the country's fasting growing
                  outlawed force.

                  The government of President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in August pledging to stem a
                  conflict that claims thousands of lives a year, says he will negotiate with any group from the
                  far right or left if it first declares a cease-fire.

                  On Saturday, the government confirmed its third meeting in Havana, Cuba, to explore the
                  possibility of peace talks with Colombia's second-largest guerrilla army, the Cuban-inspired
                  National Liberation Army, or ELN. It offered no details, saying only that talks would continue

                  Signing a peace deal with the paramilitaries could aid future peace talks with Colombia's more
                  than 20,000 Marxist rebels, analysts say. Past peace efforts between the government and the
                  country's largest guerrilla army, the FARC, have been hampered by rebel demands for a
                  crackdown on paramilitaries.

                  Human rights groups say the "paras" have links to hard-line sectors of the U.S.-backed military.
                  The militias evolved from vigilante groups set up by cattle ranchers in the 1980s to defend
                  themselves from Marxist guerrillas but are now heavily involved in the cocaine trade.

                  As part of the cease-fire, the AUC pledged on Friday to suspend offensive military operations
                  but said it would defend itself if attacked by rebels.

                  It also called on the state to militarily occupy areas which the AUC now control. The
                  paramilitaries have expelled rebels from large parts of the countryside, in some cases by
                  massacring peasants suspected of being leftist collaborators.

                  Copyright 2002 Reuters.