In Colombia, Church Offers Help in Peace Talks

Cardinal Hopes for Process Between Government and Paramilitary Groups

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BOGOTA, Colombia, NOV. 4, 2002 ( The Catholic Church in Colombia expressed its willingness to promote an eventual peace process between the government and paramilitary groups that are battling with guerrillas.

Cardinal Pedro Rubiano, archbishop of Bogota and president of the episcopal conference, told Reuters he hopes the conflicting parties commit themselves to reconciliation.

Since September, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which includes some 10,000 combatants, said that it has been working on a unified cease-fire proposal and strict compliance with international humanitarian law.

Cardinal Rubiano said: «I call not only on paramilitaries but on FARC and ELN rebels so that they understand that what the country wants is that we all recognize each other as sons of the same homeland, with the possibility of a reconciliation, and that we all get to work (…) so that the country we dream about will become a reality.»

Earlier, top AUC leader Carlos Castaño told Reuters that his organization was willing to initiate a peace process with President Alvaro Uribe’s government, if the latter commits itself to guarantee security and «social investment» in the paramilitary-controlled areas.

Castaño said that the valid representatives for an eventual peace process were the United Nations and the Catholic Church.

If the willingness of the paramilitaries and the mediation of the Catholic Church are firmly established, the first peace talks could begin between the government and the right-wing paramilitary squads, after 38 years of armed conflict. More than 40,000 people have died in the last decade alone.

In the past, the Church, considered among the most respected institutions in the country, was mediator in the failed peace talks between the government of then President Andrés Pastrana and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s main rebel group with 17,000 combatants.

The paramilitary squads are illegal armed organizations that are funded by businessmen, cattle ranchers and landowners harassed by the guerrillas.

The paramilitary forces are accused of having the support of some sectors of the armed forces and of committing human-rights violations in the clashes that have beset this country of 41 million.

President Uribe plans to restore a military presence in isolated areas now controlled by rebels and paramilitaries, which might facilitate peace talks with the right-wing squads.

Meanwhile, the Bogota weekly El Espectador revealed that the government is coordinating actions with the international community and the Church to reach an agreement on an exchange of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas. The guerrillas might be sent to France or Canada, the newspaper said Sunday.

The paper further explained that a novel aspect of the initiative is that the government will demand «the release of all those kidnapped by the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), regardless of whether they were captured for political or extortionate reasons.»

«In return, the executive will allow prosecuted guerrillas or those convicted of political crimes and a few of those connected to them, to leave the prisons,» and be sent to other countries, where they will receive guarantees of security and job possibilities, El Espectador reported.

The executive is examining the feasibility of a juridical reform that would empower the Colombian chief executive to grant conditional or provisional freedom to imprisoned guerrillas, in exchange for the release of hostages.

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