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Colombia Right-Wing Group Supporting Uribe Talks With Leftist Rebels - 2002-05-31

In Colombia, the leader of the South American nation's main rightwing paramilitary group is expressing support for President-elect Alvaro Uribe's proposal to negotiate peace with leftist rebels. The announcement comes amid increased violence between the rebels and the paramilitaries.

In a statement displayed on the internet site of the United Self-Defense Forces, known by its Spanish initials as the AUC, leader Carlos Castano said Alvaro Uribe's proposal was "bringing more hope for peace." But the paramilitary leader said his forces would continue fighting Colombia's leftist rebels until they begin serious negotiations.

After winning the presidency in Sunday's election, Mr. Uribe said he would be willing to negotiate with all armed groups in Colombia that agree to a ceasefire and refrain from acts of terrorism. Mr. Uribe made clear that the paramilitary groups were included in this.

The AUC is an umbrella organization for various armed groups that were begun by wealthy landowners to protect themselves and their families from guerrilla attacks and kidnappings. Although they are now illegal, the groups continue to operate throughout the country and often clash with rebel fighters from the nation's two large Marxist groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

On Thursday, the mayor of Colombia's second largest city, Medellin, was caught briefly in the crossfire between rebel supporters and paramilitaries who have been fighting for control of some areas of the city. Last week at least nine people died in violent clashes on the streets of Medellin.

There has been no word yet from the FARC on the Uribe peace talk proposal, but most observers in Colombia doubt the rebels will accede to the demand that they begin a ceasefire and stop all kidnappings and attacks on civilians. The current president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, tried to induce the rebels to agree to a ceasefire after granting them a large safe haven in the south of the country in 1998. The FARC used the zone for its lucrative cocaine smuggling operations and as a base for carrying out kidnappings and other attacks. Finally, Mr. Pastrana cancelled the zone in February and sent in the Colombian military to occupy it.

Alavro Uribe was critical of the Pastrana peace initiative from the beginning and called for a tougher approach with the guerrillas. He has proposed a large increase in military spending and an expansion of police forces nationwide. Mr. Uribe would also establish a citizens' network throughout the country to support the military by providing information about armed insurgent groups.

Critics have accused him of sympathy with the paramilitary groups, something he denies. Human rights organizations have expressed concern that these groups may step up attacks on civilians if they perceive a nod of approval from the new president after he takes office on August 7.

Mr. Uribe says he will treat all illegal armed groups the same. He has also said he will seek more help from the United States in fighting the illegal drug trade, from which both the FARC and the paramilitaries receive most of their funding.

The United States has supplied Colombia with over $1 billion in counter-narcotics assistance and the Bush administration has shown support for allowing at least some of the aid to be used for counter-insurgency operations. This, however, has not been approved by the U.S. Congress. President-elect Uribe says he will fly to Washington to meet with President Bush on June 20.