November 26, 2002

Uribe confirms talks with militias

Negotiations require 'not assassinating one more Colombian'

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) --Colombian President Alvaro Uribe confirmed on
Monday that his government has met secretly with paramilitaries to discuss possible
peace talks but said negotiations would only start if the right-wing militias promise not
to assassinate "one more Colombian."

Uribe made his comments one day after sources close to the negotiations told
Reuters the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia -- known in Spanish as
AUC -- had agreed to declare a two-month cease-fire beginning December 1
following a series of meetings with the government's top peace envoy.

"The peace commissioner has held contacts with spokesmen for the illegal
self-defense groups for a possible peace process which will only take place if
they commit themselves to not assassinating one more Colombian," Uribe told

Uribe, who took office in August on pledges to crack down on leftist rebels and
paramilitaries fighting in a 38-year war, had said in the past he would hold talks
with any illegal armed group provided it first declared a cease-fire.

The AUC -- a well-financed 10,000-strong militia that targets rebels and is
blamed for some of the worst atrocities in a war that kills thousands of people
every year -- is set to announce a unilateral cease-fire in the next few days.

Uribe, whose father was killed by rebels, has been under pressure to rein in the
"paras," whose force has doubled in size in the last years. Human rights groups
accuse them of having links to hard-line sectors of the U.S.-backed military.

Military suffers blow

In the worst death toll for the armed forces since Uribe came to office, fighting
on Monday between troops and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia -- Latin America's oldest rebel force known as FARC -- killed 13
soldiers and injured 10 more, the army said.

Holding peace talks with the AUC would break a long-held taboo in Colombia
and would give political legitimacy to a group whose massacres of peasants --
in some cases using chain saws and hammers -- have turned it into an
international pariah.

Colombian governments have held peace talks with the 17,000-strong FARC
but never with the AUC, which was set up by rich landowners and ranchers in
the 1980s.

Sources who participated in the talks said government officials had discussed
the possibility of granting amnesties to AUC commanders, including the group's
leader, Carlos Castano, if a peace accord was signed.

The United States, who brands the AUC "terrorists," indicted Castano last
September on charges of smuggling 17 tons of cocaine and is seeking the war
lord's extradition.

On Monday, government officials refused to comment on the issue of possible
amnesties or pardons for AUC leaders, but Interior Minister Fernando
Londono said any measure aimed at "having a person who carries a weapon to
lay it down is good."

Castano, 36, a former army scout whose father was killed by rebels, has said in
the past that he will only demobilize if rebels lay down their weapons first.
Critics say the U.S. indictments might have pressured Castano into seeking a
deal with the Colombian government.

Signing a peace deal with the AUC could pave the way for future peace talks
with the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, analysts said. Peace
efforts in the past between the government and rebels have been hampered by
rebel demands that the government crack down on paramilitaries.

Copyright 2002 Reuters. All rights reserved.