Colombia's paramilitary militias will live in a cordoned-off zone to be monitored by the OAS and Catholic Church while conducting peace negotiations with the government.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
BOGOTA - Colombian paramilitary leaders have agreed to live in a cordoned-off 142-square mile zone, protected from U.S. extradition requests, while negotiating a critical peace deal with the government, the government announced Thursday.
Arrest warrants will be lifted for 10 commanders of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, who will stay in the special zone. Police won't arrest them, and the armed forces won't attack them.
An international committee, including the Organization of American States and the Catholic Church, will oversee the arrangements, said chief government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo.
The move was one of the most important steps taken in an 18-month peace process to demobilize the AUC, a paramilitary group of some 10,000 fighters accused of dozens of massacres in its war against Colombia's two leftist guerrilla groups.
U.S. federal grand juries have indicted several AUC leaders, including AUC founder Carlos Castaño, on charges of drug running. The State Department also lists the AUC as an international ''terrorist'' organization.
Experts had speculated that the peace talks were falling apart, particularly since the April 16 disappearance of Castaño, regarded as a moderate, following an alleged attempt on his life by more hard-line AUC leaders.
''We think this is a great advance,'' Restrepo said. ``The process must continue. We can't commit the historic error of tossing the peace process overboard.''
Colombian government officials said the AUC's top 10 leaders and their bodyguards will move to Tierralta, in Colombia's northwestern Cordoba state. It was unclear when the group, expected to total about 400 men, would move there.
Restrepo said they will be allowed to carry personal weapons, if an inventory is submitted to the OAS. In the meantime, the AUC leadership will negotiate an accord aimed at getting the rest of its fighters to follow its lead.
Restrepo acknowledged that the peace process was muddled since Castaño's disappearance but said that government officials decided they needed to press forward.
''The events that occurred with Mr. Carlos Castaño leave a kind of cloud, a stain over the process,'' he said. ``The government demanded that the AUC credibly clear up what happened for the country and the world.''
Castaño's brother, Vicente, was among the signers of Thursday's agreement, as was Adolfo Paz, aka ''Don Berna,'' considered the organization's chief drug trafficker.
Castaño admitted two years ago that a large part of the AUC's finances came from protecting cocaine traffickers but had lately been pushing the group to return to its roots as an antiguerrilla movement.
'I'm surprised the Colombians are so willing to proceed, given the AUC no longer has a political purpose. At least with Carlos there was political ideology as opposed to, `Let's stay alive and stay out of jail,' '' said Castaño's Miami attorney, Joaquín Pérez, in a telephone interview Thursday.
The Castaños were among several ranching families, business people and cocaine traffickers who founded the AUC more than 20 years ago in response to kidnappings and extortions by leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and National Liberation Army, or ELN.
Over the years, the AUC has been blamed for some of the worst human rights abuses here, including massacres in which Colombian military and police officers often looked the other way.
The organization has lately also become one of the nation's principal drug traffickers, sparking the U.S. indictments and extradition requests for a number of its top leaders.
Restrepo said the U.S. extradition requests will remain pending while the negotiations go on.
A government statement set the following conditions for the so-called ''location zone'' in the north:
• It will exist for six-month renewable periods, but the government can end it at any time after giving the leaders five days to evacuate.
• Colombian government authorities will retain control of the region.
• Entry and exit will be controlled by the government. Leaders can leave only for peace-process business.
• AUC leaders must abstain from recruiting or training new members, carrying out crimes or threatening villagers within the zone.
Government officials insisted that the AUC zone was not at all comparable to the Switzerland-sized patch of southern Colombia that former President Andrés Pastrana ceded to FARC guerrillas from 1999 to 2002 in an attempt to reach a peace agreement.
Special correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky contributed to this report.