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
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
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
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
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.