The statement came in an open letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe posted Friday on the AUC’s Web site.
“The Self-Defense Forces of Colombia declare a ceasefire to begin 1 December, 2002 – not a Christmas truce – in the belief that the government will reciprocate in relation to our troops, other members and sympathizers,” the announcement said.
The AUC is a purported to have as many as 10,000 members and is believed to be responsible for thousands of killings. The group, which sprang up during the rise of the drug cartels in the 1980’s, became involved in the wider, 38-year civil war between the left-wing rebel groups — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN — and the Colombian military.
The group’s leaders, including its chief Carlos Castano and military commander Salvatore Mancuso — both recently indictment in the U.S. on cocaine smuggling charges, signed the letter.
The group called the unilateral ceasefire a “historic decision” that serves as “an explicit demonstration of our permanent will to achieve peace in the country.”
The AUC’s leaders said they was willing to make the move because they thought the Colombian government, under the leadership of the more conservative Uribe, could bring stability to the war-torn nation.
“The time has come in which the Colombian government is demonstrating its capacity and political will to immediately assume … the defense and protection of its people and territory,” said the paramilitary statement.
Salvatore Mancuso, in an interview with the Associated Press, said the declaration would also force the large left-wing rebel groups to make a move.
“The government of Alvaro Uribe is strengthening institutions, and the rebels are being exposed to the country and the international community for what they are,” military commander Salvatore Mancuso said in the AP interview.
Mancuso added the AUC leadership was ready to sit down with the FARC and the ELN at any time to discuss a peace deal.
“[The FARC and ELN] no longer have an excuse to avoid starting serious negotiations right this minute,” Mancuso said.
The Colombian Government had confirmed on Monday that the government’s lead peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, had met AUC leaders following mediation by Catholic bishops.
According to the Colombian government, Uribe would not consider full-blown peace talks without a complete ceasefire.
In the 12-point communique, Castano and the AUC’s senior leadership accepted the demand, adding it retained the right to defend itself if attacked by rebel troops.
The group also made several requests of the Uribe government in its declaration. It asked the government to guarantee the security of those living in areas occupied by the AUC, to financially help the organization as it pulls out of the fighting and drug trafficking trade, and to allow for United Nations help for child soldiers who have been fighting for the paramilitary groups.
The AUC also requested that Colombia suspend “all legal actions” against its commanders involved in negotiations. This request is seen as critical since Colombia sentenced Castano to 20 years in prison for acts committed by the AUC and the U.S. is pursuing extradition of both Castano and Mancuso to face numerous drug trafficking charges.
Neither Uribe’s government nor the FARC or ELN had any initial response to the AUC’s statement.
The ceasefire is scheduled to begin two days before the arrival in Colombia of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is expected to express support for President Uribe’s hard-line counter-insurgency efforts.