Colombian paramilitary fighters to lay down their weapons

A paramilitary warlord and about 2,000 right-wing fighters will lay down their weapons in exchange for amnesty Monday in one of Colombia's largest disarmament ceremonies in years, officials said. Paramilitary factions have been demobilizing since 2003 as part of a peace deal brokered by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that aims to dissolve the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, by early next year. The AUC once had 20,000 fighters; after Monday, about 13,000 will have formally disarmed.

On Sunday, camouflage-clad members of the AUC's Central Bolivar Bloc gathered at a ranch in the mountains of northwest Colombia, lining up to show identification cards and start collecting a temporary monthly stipend of US$180 (Ђ150) as part of the peace deal.

The disarmament ceremony comes after a human rights group accused another paramilitary faction of killing at least five civilians last week in remote northern villages.

The Minga Association for Promoting Social Alternatives said at least five bodies were taken to a morgue and that residents reported about 20 slain. Military spokespeople said they were investigating the report but could not confirm it.

Paramilitary leader Carlos Jimenez, alias "Macaco," and his fighters will give up their weapons and two helicopters in the cattle-ranching town of Otu, 260 kilometers (160 miles) north of Bogota, paramilitary spokesman Fernando Soto said.

The Central Bolivar faction is among Colombia's most powerful, and authorities say Jimenez is closely linked to the powerful Norte Del Valle drug cartel. Critics say he is one of several commanders who bought his way into the AUC with drug money, seeking to benefit from the peace process and avoid extradition to the United States on possible drug charges.

By demobilizing, paramilitary leaders are given sharply reduced prison sentences for crimes they may have committed, including massacres of civilians. Most foot soldiers are given a full pardon and can be eligible for job-training programs and a stipend for two years.

The paramilitaries were created two decades ago by wealthy ranchers for protection from leftist guerrillas that have been battling the government for 41 years. They quickly transformed into a massive criminal organization blamed for numerous atrocities and drug trafficking.

Colombia's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has shunned peace talks, but the smaller National Liberation Army agreed to begin preliminary talks with Uribe's government this week in Cuba.

Monday's ceremony was to include fewer than half the estimated number of paramilitary fighters in the Central Bolivar faction; members elsewhere are to disarm in coming months, peace commission spokesman Carlos Cortes said.

Critics argue the peace deal is too soft on paramilitary groups and is doing little to keep the groups from reorganizing. The government says the agreement is helping to ease fighting that kills more than 3,000 people a year. "I've only been doing this for a few years, but that's long enough," said Andres, a 28-year-old fighter who wouldn't give his last name, saying his commander wouldn't let him speak to journalists, reports the AP. I.L.

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