BOGOTA, Colombia, July 8 (Reuters) - Four feared Colombian paramilitary warlords said on Friday they would lay down their arms, raising hopes all far-right militias would disband under peace talks the government has been forced to defend.
Ramon Isaza, Ramiro Vanoy, Pablo Mejia and Jorge 40 said in a communique their 4,000 fighters would demobilize as part of talks between the government and the outlaw United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC.
About 5,000 of the AUC's 20,000 members have now handed in their arms to the government, under 2-year-old peace talks, and commanders of 7,000 other men have also said they are about to disband.
But the four, who command men in regions ranging from central Colombia to the border with Venezuela, previously expressed doubts about handing in their arms and giving up the war.
The warlords' announcement came after Congress approved in June a government-sponsored law that will limit prison sentences to a maximum of eight years for AUC members accused of killings or other crimes.
Human rights groups have denounced the law as letting AUC chiefs get off lightly for some of Colombia's worst human rights abuses, including the killings of thousands of people in an illegal war against Marxist rebels. They also say the agreement means details of many crimes will never be known.
The United States supports the peace process by its close ally but classes the AUC as a "terrorist" organization and says it is responsible for a large proportion of Colombia's massive cocaine exports.
President Alvaro Uribe has responded indignantly to the criticism and officials argue some concessions must be made to criminals to secure peace with the AUC and reduce violence in a war claiming thousands of lives a year.
The AUC has its origins in vigilante groups set up by drug traffickers and cattle ranchers in the 1980s to defend their property from Marxist rebels, who have now been waging war against the state for 41 years. The AUC's men often cooperated with members of the armed forces, although the government says soldiers helping paramilitaries are criminals.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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