January 13, 1999
Colombia death squads halt nationwide bloodbath

                  BOGOTA (Reuters) -- Colombia's ultra-right death squads said Wednesday
                  they had suspended a nationwide offensive but defended their orgy of
                  bloodshed over the weekend by saying the more than 140 civilians they
                  massacred were leftist rebels.

                  The national alliance of paramilitary gangs, known as the United Self-Defense
                  Forces of Colombia (AUC), reiterated their offer to start peace talks with
                  President Andres Pastrana in parallel with negotiations the government
                  launched last week with the country's largest Marxist rebel force.

                  The AUC statement came two days after the government pledged to "silence
                  paramilitary rifles" and warned that the outlawed groups posed a serious threat
                  to the fledgling talks, aimed at ending a long-running civil conflict that has
                  claimed more than 35,000 lives in the past decade.

                  "The upsurge in our actions ... was due to the need to recover territory
                  occupied by the guerrillas during our (temporary Christmas) ceasefire," the
                  AUC said in an open letter to Pastrana, a copy of which was obtained by

                  "We have now recovered those areas and that now allows us to moderate our
                  military operations. Our actions were not carried out against civilians not
                  involved in the conflict but against proven subversives, though some of those
                  were not in combat," it added.

                  The AUC unleashed a four-day bloodbath, massacring more than 140 people
                  in five separate provinces, last Thursday-- the same day Pastrana traveled to
                  the southeast jungle town of San Vicente to launch peace talks with
                  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

                  One of the most savage attacks was in the riverfront village of Playon de
                  Orozco in northern Magdalena province where right-wing extremists dragged
                  27 worshipers from a church and riddled them with bullets under the horrified
                  gaze of the parish priest.

                  The attacks came in reply to a recent guerrilla raid on the mountain stronghold
                  of Colombia's most-feared death squad leader, Carlos Castano.

                  FARC rebels massacred more than 30 peasants, beheading some of their
                  victims, in that onslaught, which came at the height of the paramilitary gangs'
                  self-imposed Christmas ceasefire.

                  The guerrillas have refused to allow the death squads to sit down at the same
                  table with them and the government.

                  Like international human rights groups, the guerrillas argue that the
                  paramilitary groups, which now total some 5,000 fighters, are part of an
                  undercover official counterinsurgency and receive backing from the armed

                  In its letter to Pastrana, the AUC also called for all Colombia's illegal armed
                  groups, on the left and right, to declare a ceasefire while peace talks

                  But leaders of the FARC, the hemisphere's oldest and largest guerrilla group,
                  have ruled out any truce until at least 80 percent of their demands, including
                  sweeping agrarian reform, radical wealth distribution and an end to unfettered
                  free market policies, are fulfilled.

                    Copyright 1999 Reuters.