Colombian government defends putting paramilitary leader in prison

Colombia's government on Friday defended its decision to imprison paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, a move that caused the paramilitary group to halt its demobilization process and has thrown the peace process into crisis.

Murillo was arrested in June, accused of ordering the killing of a state congressman and two companions in April while peace negotiations were ongoing and after the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, declared a cease-fire. He was being held under house arrest, but last week was transferred to a maximum-security prison north of Bogota, the capital.

President Alvaro Uribe's office said the paramilitaries have no grounds to protest one of its leaders being jailed for committing a crime during peace talks. But the real concern expressed by a paramilitary leader on Friday was extradition to the United States.

The United States wants to extradite Murillo to New York, where he faces charges of exporting tons of cocaine to the U.S. Uribe said last week he will not authorize the extradition of Murillo to the United States as long as he stops committing crimes and abides by the peace process, which seeks to disarm all the paramilitary fighters who have waged a war against leftist rebels and their supporters.

AUC spokesman Ernesto Baez said Friday that his group wants government guarantees that Murillo will not be extradited, and also wants him designated as a peace negotiator. But this would likely require that he be taken out of the maximum security prison where he has been for the past week, and the government has not indicated a willingness to do this.

Several paramilitary leaders are also wanted in the United States for drug trafficking.

The AUC on Thursday halted the demobilization process that began two years ago. Some 9,000 of the group's 20,000 fighters have yet to disarm.

The paramilitary factions were created by wealthy ranchers and cocaine traffickers in the 1980s to battle the rebels. Two leftist rebel armies _ the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army _ have declined to enter into peace talks with the government, AP reported.

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