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Colombian Paramilitaries Declare Cease-Fire - 2002-11-29

Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries have declared a unilateral cease-fire to pave the way for peace talks with the government. Citizens hope the proposal will close the door on one of the most violent periods in their country's history.

The paramilitaries posted the 12-point communiqué on their website Friday morning. The group said it would end all hostilities, indefinitely, beginning December 1.

Known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the organization also said it would hand over its underage fighters to UNICEF. It asked the Catholic Church to oversee immediate peace negotiations with the government.

The government revealed earlier this week that peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo had been meeting secretly with AUC leaders to discuss the possibility of peace talks.

In their communique, the paramilitaries asked authorities to release jailed combatants, and to suspend legal procedures against its negotiators. The United States is asking for Colombia to extradite AUC leader Carlos Castano on drug trafficking charges.

Mr. Castano has built the AUC into a 10,000-strong fighting machine to combat leftist rebels in remote areas, where there is little or no state presence. His illegal forces are blamed for some of the worst atrocities in this war-torn country, and the group is on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list.

But lately, internal disputes over drug trafficking profits have caused rifts. Analysts say Mr. Castano may not be able to hold the group together much longer, and that he is looking for a way out.

If the government accepts the AUC offer, it could mean less violence in the countryside. It remains to be seen if over-stretched government forces can fill the security vacuum in areas under paramilitary control.