Paramilitaries Forgo Guns In Colombia

Saturday, March 11, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 10 -- The last large Colombian right-wing paramilitary force gave up its guns Friday as part of a peace deal negotiated with the government.

Rodrigo Tovar, alias "Jorge 40," the paramilitary leader on Colombia's Caribbean coast, led 2,500 of his troops in the demobilization ceremony.

About 28,000 right-wing fighters have accepted the government's offer of reduced jail terms for such crimes as massacre, torture and cocaine smuggling.

The ceremony in the northern town of La Mesa was attended by indigenous leaders whose people have been caught for decades in the cross-fire between the paramilitary fighters and left-wing rebels.

The paramilitaries have committed some of the worst atrocities of Colombia's guerrilla war, in which they have collaborated with members of the army to fight the rebels.

Opposition politicians and human rights groups say the demobilization is a smokescreen that allows the paramilitaries to secure benefits from the government without being forced to dismantle their cocaine-smuggling and extortion networks.

Critics also say the paramilitaries will use Sunday's congressional elections to gain political cover for illegal activities.

Tovar, wanted for drug trafficking in the United States, said he was willing to be extradited.

"We are ready to be summoned before the U.S. and European courts to take responsibility," said the boss of the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

He called on the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, who have waged war against the state since the 1960s, to follow in the footsteps of the paramilitaries.

The ELN is in preliminary talks with the government, but the FARC has refused to negotiate with President Alvaro Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally elected in 2002 on promises of cracking down on the rebels.

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