May 2, 2001

As U.S. tags them terrorists, Colombia paramilitaries unrepentant

                  BUENAVENTURA, Colombia (AP) -- Paramilitary fighters branded terrorists
                  this week by the U.S. government are unrepentant about the bloody counterinsurgency
                  campaign they are waging across Colombia.

                  Three weeks after allegedly taking part in what officials are calling one of the most
                  gruesome massacres in memory -- villagers were reportedly mutilated with chain
                  saws -- militia members captured by troops near this Pacific port spoke defiantly
                  about their struggle.

                  "I am proud to be a member of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,"
                  one olive-clad fighter declared to journalists flown to a naval base here Tuesday.

                  The militia member, who declined to give his name, was among 62 alleged
                  paramilitary fighters captured in a weekend operation that Colombia's
                  government says is proof of its resolve against rightist violence that the military
                  has been accused of tolerating. They are part of a larger unit accused in the
                  Easter week massacre of at least 19 villagers -- possibly as many as 40.

                  "Despite the criticism that we get, today once more we can show positive results,"
                  President Andres Pastrana said inside an aircraft hangar where the militia members
                  had been displayed. "Today, we are fighting all of those operating outside the law."

                  Pastrana said it was the largest capture ever of fighters from the group known by
                  its Spanish initials, AUC. Colombian marines claimed to have killed another eight
                  fighters as they fled the massacre site by river.

                  Spread at the president's feet as he spoke were items seized from the fighters: assault
                  rifles, grenades, mortar launchers, militia armbands and a chain saw.

                  Paramilitaries on rise in Colombia

                  Leftist guerrillas and their rightist paramilitary rivals are fighting over territory and
                  drug profits in Colombia's 37-year civil war. Unarmed peasants suspected of
                  collaborating with the enemy often become victims.

                  The outlawed paramilitaries are quickly expanding, filling a security void left by a
                  weak central government. From less than a thousand in 1992, the AUC is now
                  believed to have at least 8,000 fighters.

                  Led by Carlos Castano, a former army guide whose father was assassinated by
                  guerrillas, the group has killed thousands of suspected leftists and is trying to
                  sabotage peace talks between Pastrana and guerillas.

                  U.S. officials now say the AUC could pose an even greater threat to Colombia's
                  democracy than the leftist rebels.

                  The State Department on Monday included the AUC for the first time in a
                  worldwide list of terrorist organizations. A U.S. spokesman cited a "dramatic
                  increase" in AUC use of terrorist tactics, including kidnappings and the murder
                  of civilians. The list had already included Colombia's two main rebel groups --
                  the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials,
                  FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

                  Washington has been pressuring Colombia to crack down on paramilitary
                  violence and to sever ties between the AUC and elements within the armed
                  forces -- a major U.S. military aid recipient.

                  New accusations of army-paramilitary complicity surfaced after the April
                  massacre in western Cauca state. Human rights and refugee officials contend the
                  army did nothing as hundreds of AUC fighters moved in for the slaughter.

                  In Buenaventura, the captured fighters denied ties to the military and insisted the
                  chain saw was only used to cut wood.

                  "They fired at us and we fired back at them," said a short, mustachioed fighter
                  who identified himself only as Junior. "It was not a massacre like they are saying
                  on the news."

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.