- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

From combined dispatches

BOGOTA, Colombia — Feared paramilitary chief Carlos Castano — whose forces are accused of many massacres — urged all Colombians to forgive each other to end nearly four decades of civil war.

In an interview broadcast Monday on Caracol television, Castano stopped short of an apology but admitted “regrettable excesses” in his troops’ fight against Marxist guerrillas.

“I am a victim of the violence,” Mr. Castano said, citing the slaying of his father by the rebels. “I, too, demand justice.

“But I cannot continue in this vicious circle, where I kill you, you kill me, because where will we end up? If in 22 years I have been unable to change hardly anything, then right now I am thinking of opting for something different than force — a gesture of peace.”

Mr. Castano has entered peace talks with the Colombian government and promised to disarm his 13,000 troops by the end of 2005.

He faces dozens of murder and massacre charges. Yet the Colombian government is pushing for legislation that would prevent war criminals who disarm from going to jail.

If Congress approves the plan, alternative ways would be found for insurgents to pay for their crimes, such as financial compensation to families of their victims.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s largest guerrilla army, the Marxist FARC, has threatened to kill all candidates for October municipal elections, saying they and their families will be declared military targets.

In a letter sent to the nation’s mayors, obtained by Reuters news service over the weekend, FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — said the threat extended to candidates for mayor, governor, city council and provincial legislatures.

The nationwide vote, the first election under the government of President Alvaro Uribe, is slated for Oct. 26. The president took power last year promising to make Latin America’s most violent nation safe again.

On Monday, rebels kidnapped 15 persons and then killed six policemen and a soldier who tried to rescue them, police said yesterday.

The civilians were kidnapped at a roadblock in Caldas province in rural northwest Colombia. The military freed the civilians later Monday, but failed to capture or kill any of the Marxist guerrillas, a police commander said.

Mr. Castano’s paramilitary troops, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, arose in the 1980s to combat extortion and kidnappings by FARC and other rebels in rural areas, where government troops had little or no control.

Members of the militia have been accused of some of the worst human-rights crimes in the nation’s 39-year-old civil war — including massacring civilians they believed to be collaborators with the rebels. In recent years the conflict has killed about 3,500 people annually, mostly civilians.

“We never wanted to incur these atrocious crimes that today have put us in such a complicated situation,” Mr. Castano said. “But they must be confronted. It must be accepted that there were regrettable excesses.”

The militia is also accused of trafficking in drugs to finance its fight. Mr. Castano and two other paramilitary leaders were indicted in the United States in September on charges of exporting 17 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe since 1997.

Mr. Castano said his paramilitary fighters “have reached their end” and that the decision to disarm is irreversible.

About 5,000 militia troops will gather in the banana-growing region of Uraba in northwest Colombia within three months as part of the demobilization plan, he said.

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