- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia (Agence France-Presse) — The government of President Alvaro Uribe called on Marxist guerrillas Sunday to participate in peace talks after right-wing paramilitaries put down their weapons in a similar deal last week.

Government peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo voiced optimism that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) would follow the example set by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), whose paramilitaries have begun disarming.

“The main reason behind the disarming of the AUC is that it supports state rights. A second important reason is that it opens a path of negotiation with the [Marxist] guerrilla groups,” Mr. Restrepo told reporters.

The government has said FARC and ELN use the existence of armed AUC paramilitaries as a key argument for continuing their own operations.

“For many years, it has been said that a peace deal [with FARC and ELN] could not be advanced because of the existence of the AUC. However, we are now disarming the AUC, and because of this we want to widen the road to peace,” Mr. Restrepo said.

He noted that FARC, Columbia’s largest rebel group with 17,000 combatants, has been exploring the possibility of such an accord through contacts with the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Restrepo said the government hopes that the church might be able to negotiate a “formula” with FARC that could lead to a release of hostages held by the group, including civilians and members of the armed forces.

The peace commissioner noted that the government has struck agreements with ELN. The 4,000-strong group recently freed two high-profile European tourists it had been holding as hostages.

Although ELN still holds other foreign hostages, Mr. Restrepo said he hopes the release of the two hostages could lead to peace talks with the group.

More than 850 right-wing paramilitaries loyal to AUC started laying down their weapons Tuesday after a disarmament agreement with the government.

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