Colombia

Colombian officials seek support in Washington for demobilization

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By Maria Isabel Rivero, dpa

Washington (dpa) - Top Colombian officials have been in Washington since Monday seeking support for their controversial demobilization law, passed last month, which provides for some prison terms and reintegration of armed left and right wing forces that have kept the country in turmoil for 40 years.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos and Foreign Minister Carolina Barco are leading the delegation that has been meeting with U.S. State Department and Congressional officials, and with the Organization of American States that is headquartered in the U.S. capital.

To date, only the leaders of the right wing paramilitary organization, United Self Defence Forces of Columbia (AUC), have agreed to come in from the cold, an issue that has sparked criticism from left wing groups within Colombia and from international human rights groups.

But Santos tried to make clear in Washington that the law is open to all parties who are willing to register their names, describe truthfully whether they participated in crimes against humanity and give up their guns. He said leaders of a leftist armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have not come forward to negotiate with the government.

"If we don't have a peace process with the FARC, it is not because of a lack of will on the part of government, but because of a lack of balls'' on the part of FARC, Santos told reporters.

Under the law, all militants who turn themselves in and who confess to war crimes can go to jail for five to eight years. Those who have demonstrably not committed any crimes are not sent to jail, but if prosecutors later determine culpability, they would face the full force of Colombia's human rights law, which could put them in prison for decades.

The Colombian government says it will need money to help settle the fighters into a new life and reincoroporate them into society. The right wing AUC alone has perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 armed men and women under its control.

Santos emphasized that there are false conceptions about the law, including that it provides for amnesty.

"It's not amnesty. The law is not perfect,'' said Santos. He said that the law may not provide much as much "justice'' as one would want, but that was the price to be paid for peace.

John Maisto, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, backs Colombia's demobilization law, calling it another weapon against narco-terrorism and a tool to effectively dismantle armed groups.

The law had resulted from years of negotiations in the Colombian Congress and from a democratic and transparent process that too place with consultations within the international community, Maistos said.

"Let us do this,'' Minister Barco said. The Colombian officials met with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; with Roger Noriega, assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere; and with John Walters, U.S. President George W. Bush's top advisor on drug matters.

The ongoing civil conflict in Colombia is inextricably intertwined with Colombia's illicit drug trade, which helps fund weapons and other needs of the fighters.

The AUC agreed in 2003 during negotiations with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to disarm about 20,000 fighters by the end of 2005. But only about 5,300 paramilitaries have returned to civilian life thus far.

Critics from human rights organizations and the Inter American Human Rights Commission are concerned that the structure of narco-trafficking and paramilitary organization could remain in tact.

But Santos reassured sceptics that the law was the toughest demobilization law his country had ever passed, and compared it to a law some decades ago that demobilized the leftist so-called M19 fighters, who turned around and entered politics after they came in from the cold.

"It is the toughest demobilization law we have had in our history,'' he said.

Colombian officials have also moved to defuse concerns by Colombian police that paramilitary forces have been recruiting unemployed people and youngsters shortly before weapon hand-over ceremonies, putting them in uniforms and then demobilising them, so that the real combat units are spared. dpa mr pr

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