Alvaro Uribe's administration on Tuesday issued a stark warning to the country's right-wing paramilitary militias: demobilize completely by the end of the year or face a military onslaught. The ultimatum came as leaders of the paramilitary umbrella United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC, have suspended disarmament talks to protest the jailing last month of a top warlord accused of ordering the murder of a state congressman in violation of a cease-fire agreement.
AUC commanders want the government to immediately release Diego Fernando Murillo, a former underworld assassin and alleged drug kingpin, and provide explicit guarantees that they won't be extradited to the United States to face drug-related charges if they disarm.
But Uribe has consistently refused to provide such guarantees, saying only that extradition orders are suspended for as long as the warlords respect a cease-fire and stay in peace talks. Ernesto Baez, the AUC's political chief, said he was surprised by the government's ultimatum and that commanders "will closely study the government's statement."
He insisted the AUC had not pulled out of peace talks but merely suspended them to take stock of the situation. "The process continues, despite all the difficulties," he said in an interview with RCN radio. But Sen. Carlos Moreno de Caro, the head of the Senate's peace commission, said the government needed to tread more carefully. Paramilitary groups were created two decades ago as an irregular army to attack leftist rebels that have been fighting the government since the 1960s. The AUC, an umbrella organization for regional paramilitary factions, decided to seek a peace deal two years ago to exit the war and leave the government to fight the rebels on its own.
A peace deal adopted in June gives AUC leaders sharply reduced prison sentences in exchange for agreeing to demobilize. About 11,000 paramilitary fighters have laid down their arms at ceremonies around that country in the past two years and the government had hoped the remaining 9,000 would do so before the end of the year.
Opposition lawmakers and international rights groups slam the AUC peace process, saying it does little to prevent fighters from regrouping under a different name and continuing to traffic drugs and commit crimes. Even with the paramilitary peace deal, the Colombian conflict, which kills 3,000 people each year, is far from over because the two main leftist rebel groups have refused peace talks,AP reports.