Friday, December 10, 2004

Colombian paramilitary group begins disarming

TIBU, Colombia (AP) -- More than a thousand paramilitary fighters began demobilizing Friday in the remote jungles of Colombia, where the main road is marked by crosses, burned vehicles and blown-up bridges -- the scars of a protracted and bitter battle between their right-wing faction and leftist rebels for control of the region's cocaine industry.

The Catatumbo Bloc paramilitary group gathered to turn in their weapons at a ranch in northeast Colombia near the Venezuela border. Their commander, Salvatore Mancuso, and others delivered speeches marking the start of the demobilization ceremony, which was delayed by torrential rainfall.

The group is the largest faction to give up its arms under a peace plan that envisions the total demobilization of Colombia's outlawed paramilitary forces by 2006.

But the paramilitaries' opponents, the rebels, are not demobilizing, creating a challenge for government forces to provide stability and security for the bloodied region.

"There is a sea of confusion at this time ... but there is one certainty: the only path to peace is the one we are traveling on now," Salvatore Mancuso, the chief of the Catatumbo Bloc of the paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Washington seeks to extradite Mancuso for allegedly trafficking tons of cocaine to U.S. shores, but the Colombian government has given him and other paramilitary leaders safe-conduct passes while they are participating in the peace process.

Mancuso said he wanted the extradition issue resolved. "I hope these problems will be solved and the people of the United States and their government understand why we were involved in this conflict, and that we have the will to advance in the construction of peace," Mancuso said in the interview late Thursday in a jungle camp.

The roadside crosses are a stark reminder of the human toll of a war that has simmered in the Catatumbo region for five years.

Last June, FARC rebels massacred 34 peasant workers on a coca farm -- which produces the main ingredient of cocaine. The victims were tied up with their hammocks and shot dead "like dogs," according to a survivor. There have been firefights, and murders of civilians suspected of supporting the enemy.

"The great challenge of the Colombian state is to occupy these areas being abandoned by the self-defense forces and guarantee that there won't be retaliations by the guerrillas, and to prevent drug traffickers from finding other ways to continue their business here," Luis Miguel Morelli, governor of Northern Santander state, said Thursday.

The government has deployed 700 troops and police to maintain order in the wild, isolated area, where dirt roads snake into thick jungle, which are dotted with clandestine coca processing labs.

"This is a coordinated task, where the National Police are in the immediate vicinity and the army on the fringes," said Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces.

Also attending Friday's demobilization ceremony was government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, Morelli -- who was arriving from the provincial capital Cucuta -- church officials and others.

Critics of the peace process that began in July say they fear it will allow the paramilitary bosses, many of whom have been trafficking drugs, to keep their drug fortunes while escaping justice and that they will escape punishment for their human rights abuses. Colombia's paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s to combat rebels who have been waging war in this South American nation for 40 years, but -- like the rebels -- turned to drug trafficking to finance and enrich themselves.

Local residents expressed fear that the rebels, who have been pushed out of many parts of the Catatumbo by the paramilitaries, will re-emerge with a vengeance unless the government provides security.

"We're afraid, because if they leave the village alone, the guerrillas can come in again," said Amparo Morales, owner of a village general store.

President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who has vowed to restore order to this South American nation, said in Bogota this week that government security forces would remain in Catatumbo.

"Colombia cannot continue to be humiliated by the guerrillas, humiliated by being defended by paramilitary groups financed by drug trafficking," he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.