Peace hopes in Colombia as militia lays down arms

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The Independent US

Some 450 right-wing Colombian paramilitary fighters turned in their weapons yesterday and asked society to allow them back into its fold.

Some 450 right-wing Colombian paramilitary fighters turned in their weapons yesterday and asked society to allow them back into its fold.

The members of the "Banana Bloc" of the outlawed United Self-Defence Forces, or AUC, sang the national anthem, then laid down hundreds of rifles, grenade-launchers and mortars on a long table.

"We have been given hope again," Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government peace commissioner, told the disarmament ceremony at a football stadium in Turbo, 310 miles north-west of the capital, Bogota. The ceremony completes the disbandment of the Banana Bloc, which for more than a decade held sway over much of Colombia's main banana-growing region, Antioquia state.

The fighters will now head to a nearby country estate where authorities will review their individual legal status, health, education and job prospects. Once deemed fit to return to civil society, they will be allowed to leave as free men.

Villagers, however, have expressed concern that Marxist rebels driven away by the paramilitaries could return to fill the void. The army says it has sent 500 additional troops to secure the region.

Peace talks between the government and the AUC began in July in a safe haven in north-west Colombia and aim to demobilise the AUC's 15,000 right-wing fighters by 2006. Hundreds have already demobilised, though the fate of commanders and fighters accused of gross human rights abuses has yet to be decided.

Right-wing paramilitary groups were created two decades ago to combat leftist guerrillas. They finance themselves through drug trafficking and extortion.

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