Pubdate: Sun, 09 Mar 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press


BOGOTA (AP)--The leader of Colombia's largest right-wing paramilitary army
acknowledged Sunday that a U.S. request to extradite him and his associates
severely weakened the outlaw organization.

Carlos Castano, chief of the feared United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,
or AUC, and two other paramilitary leaders are accused of exporting 17 tons
of cocaine into the U.S. and Europe since 1997.

The U.S. government said in September that it would seek their extradition
to the U.S. to stand trial.

"It blew the AUC to pieces," Carlos Castano wrote in a statement published
on his group's web page. "On that day the AUC stopped being very attractive
for many of its members."

The AUC, blamed for some of the worst civilian massacres in Colombia's
history, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State
Department. Castano has insisted he won't go to the U.S. to stand trial as
long as he is labeled a terrorist.

The AUC and the Colombian government began exploratory peace talks late last
year, not long after the indictments against Castano, Salvatore Mancuso and
Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez were announced.

In his statement Sunday, Castano expressed support for the peace talks as a
way to strengthen state institutions and end drug trafficking in Colombia -
the world's top exporter of cocaine.

The paramilitary militias, leftist rebels, and the Colombian government are
entangled in a 38-year civil conflict that kills about 3,500 every year.
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