April 11, 2006

Last members of feared Colombian militia disarm

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - The last fighters of
Colombia's most feared paramilitary militia, the United
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, blamed for the killing of
thousands of civilians, laid down their weapons on Tuesday, the
government said.

The last 1,765 members of the paramilitary army known by
its Spanish initials AUC handed in their arms to the government
in the town of Casibare in Meta province, central Colombia, in
a ceremony presided over by government peace negotiator Luis
Carlos Restrepo.

All of the AUC's 30,140 members have now handed in their
arms in a demobilization that began in late 2003, said
Restrepo, announcing the end of an organization classified as
"terrorist" by the United States and responsible for many of
the worst human rights abuses in Colombia in recent years.

"We can say that the AUC formally stopped existing today,"
Restrepo said.

President Alvaro Uribe says the demobilization -- achieved
in return for the promise of freedom in civilian life or
steeply reduced jail sentences for crimes including murder --
are a major factor in the sharp fall in violence related to
Colombia's four-decade-old guerrilla war.

But the United Nations and many analysts say the
demobilization has not ended the AUC's influence or dismantled
its criminal and cocaine-smuggling infrastructure.

And several thousand other far-right paramilitaries, who
are not members of the AUC, have yet to hand in their weapons.

The AUC and other paramilitary groups have their origins in
vigilante groups set up by cocaine smugglers and cattle
ranchers to protect themselves from Marxist rebels.

They quickly earned international notoriety for their
tactic of killing peasants they suspected of collaborating with
the guerrillas, often using brutal methods.

Courts have established that factions within the army
worked together with the AUC to fight the rebels, and many
analysts credit the paramilitary offensive with severely
weakening the Marxist revolt. The government says soldiers
cooperating with the AUC are criminals.

While negotiating with the AUC, close Washington ally Uribe
has stepped up military action against the largest rebel army,
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But the
government is moving toward peace talks with a smaller Marxist
rebel group.

Uribe's security policies have given him an approval rating
of about 70 percent and polls predict he will win a second
four-year term in the May 28 presidential election.

His opponents have seized upon accusations of links between
Uribe supporters and the paramilitaries -- although so far, his
standing in the polls has not been hurt.