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14 January 1999 Edition

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Right wing tries to derail Colombian talks

By Soledad Galiana

The efforts of the Colombian government and the left-wing Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (FARC) to reach some consensus in relation to the beginning of a possible peace process in Colombia could be delayed after the killing of at least 150 peasants by the right-wing United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC).

During the official opening of the negotiations involving the Colombian government and the left-wing guerrilla group FARC, President Pastrana pointed out that ``time for peace has arrived and nothing can stop us now''.

As he was talking, the AUC were killing peasants in the areas of Colombia under its control. Although the leader of the right-wing paramilitaries, Carlos Castanos, has claimed he would not interfere in the dialogue between his government and the FARC, the massacres carried out by his men have forced President Pastrana to deviate his attention from the peace negotiations. He called for a meeting of the Colombian Security Council to deal with the latest killings and to design a new plan aimed at finishing with the paramilitary groups that not so long ago were part of the government strategy against the FARC and the other left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The Colombian media have accused the police of not defending the inhabitants of one of the villages attacked. On Saturday 9 January the paramilitaries killed 14 people in the village of San Pablo. The police forces in the village stayed in their barracks while the massacre was carried out, not responding to inhabitants' calls for help.

The policemen claimed they had to stay in the barracks as they were attacked by the paramilitaries, but eyewitness testimonies denied there were any such attacks. It seems that the paramilitaries attacked the village because the population supported a march against the extreme right-wing.

Furthermore, members of the FARC arrested two snipers in the area where the peace talks was being held. Everything indicated that their intention was to kill the leader of the FARC, Manual Marulanda Velez ``Tirofijo'' who failed to turn up for the official opening of the peace negotiations. The leader of the Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia sent a message along with his three envoys in which he highlighted the guerrilla demands for economic, social and political reforms and hinted at a ceasefire if at least eight of the ten points in the document are met by the government.

For their part, the government presented another document, with a similar number of demands, to the guerrilla representatives. The two main points of the document are the unconditional respect for human rights and the end of the kidnappings. These Colombian government proposals came along at a time when the FARC had released three foreigners kidnapped by its forces.

Another issue for discussion was the exchange of prisoners. The government keeps at least 400 members of the FARC in prison, while the revolutionary movement keeps 300 members of the army and police forces as prisoners.

Plan to eradicate coca crops

Along with the peace negotiation the government has announced a plan to rebuild the areas of the country destroyed during the conflict. This project, called Colombia Plan, will see nearly £3 billion delivered into these areas in the next three years and will allow for the guerrillas to propose sectors and areas where part of this amount could be spent.

On the other hand, the FARC has offered an alternative strategy to put an end to the coca crops. ``The FARC are ready to eradicate the cocaine [trade] in a three to five year period on condition that there is money for the peasants to invest in other products,'' said the spokesperson from the revolutionary movement, Raul Reyes.

The future of the coca plantations is one of the main points being negotiated between the FARC and the government. This issue was dealt with in a previous meeting in Costa Rica, when the FARC invited US officials to visit the plantations of coca and poppy so ``they could have a real perspective of the problem''.

Thirty years of conflict

In a period of ten years starting on 1988, 277,143 people were killed in Colombia; there was an average of 70 people killed every day. The armed conflict is costing Colombia an average of £5 billion per year, an amount that would pay off the country's debt in just two years.

The beginning of the civil conflict in Colombia started in 1948 when the leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Gaitan, was killed. Then, for a period of more than 20 years, known as The Violence, armed groups, organised and paid by landlords, attacked and killed poor peasants and indigenous people to take over their lands.

These armed groups were the embryo of what is known today as the United Self Defences (AUC). These paramilitary groups are still being supported by the big land owners and economic interests in the country. The FARC appeared in the 60s when a group of peasants with an ideological connection to communist ideas decided to defend themselves. Then came along the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL).

Today, the FARC are estimated to be 25,000 strong.

In the 80s and 90s the activities of the paramilitary groups increased, and it was suspected that there was collusion from the army and the police forces in some of their actions, as paramilitary groups are known to be acting in areas with an army presence and it has been reported that the paramilitaries use army equipment, and that every so often they cross army checkpoints to carry out their actions.

Another actor in this war are the drug barons, the well known Cartels of Medellin and Cali, who has been restructured in the last years.


The President of the organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, Knut Vollebeek, announced on Tuesday 12 January that they have reached ``an agreement for the release of the eight Serbian soldiers'' held by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The action of the pro-Albanian guerrilla group led to an angry response from the Serbian army, who prepared an action against the village in which they supposed the KLA was keeping the eight soldiers which threatened the peace agreement reached later last year.

Sierra Leone

Hundreds of people are being killed in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city. Thousands are trapped without water, electricity or food between the two armies in conflict, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Ecomog forces. The conflict is a new outbreak in the civil conflict which began in 1991. In these eight years, 15,000 people have died and half of the 4.5 million inhabitants of Sierra Leone have become refugees in their own country.

The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for the refugees, Kris Janowski, explained last Tuesday in Geneva that the conflict will cause yet another ``humanitarian catastrophe if a ceasefire is not called - the situation is terrible for the civil population. They have nowhere to go. This explains why people are living in the area''.

A million people are living in Freetown, doubling the number of inhabitants registered in 1991, when the civil war began. The government of the constitutional president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah have ordered the population to stay in their houses, as everyone wandering the streets will be considered a rebel.

The Foreign Affairs ministers of Ivory Coast and Toga, countries which are members of the Ecomog, brought the historical chief of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, to Guinea Conakry, for the start of possible negotiations.

Sankoh, in prison since March 1997 in Nigeria and then in Sierra Leone, has been asking for a ceasefire, but the commander of rebel forces wants a private interview with him before the RUF follow this order.

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