BOGOTA, Colombia – The Organization of American States (search) has reproached the United States and the European Union for refusing to participate in Colombia's (search) peace process with right-wing paramilitary groups despite what it called impressive progress.
The comments on Monday by Sergio Caramagna (search), the head of the OAS mission facilitating the talks, came after 1,400 militia fighters last week turned in their weapons and, to the surprise of many, also returned plundered goods such as ranches and small businesses.
"These are indispensable steps toward peace in Colombia. The international community should support it," Caramagna said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "To this day the world has opposed this process, but it's worth embracing."
The United States, European governments and the United Nations have all kept out of the talks with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, due to concern that AUC chieftains — blamed for massacres and drug trafficking — could face immunity.
While the United States did send a representative to observe Friday's disarmament ceremony in the Catatumbo region, near the border with Venezuela, the European Union stayed away completely. Both have so far refused to help directly fund the peace process or pay for rehabilitation programs for demobilized AUC fighters.
The European Union has said it will not get involved at least until there is a legal framework for judging paramilitary crimes.
President Alvaro Uribe has asked Congress to approve a bill that would limit sentences for warlords to no more than 10 years, while allowing them to serve time under house arrest. But a tougher bill pushed by a group of senators would send warlords to prison and demand they return all illegally acquired property.
No deal is expected until Congress reconvenes next year.
Uribe said Monday that he hoped the fact that the AUC has started demobilizing its fighters and handed back looted goods will make it easier to reach an agreement.
"We are fortunate that concrete acts of peace have now been made, facilitating such a framework," he said in a statement. "When there are no acts of peace, a legal framework would be drawn up amid doubts, suspicion and uncertainty."
Caramagna said the international community needed to show more flexibility.
"A peace process is not only about putting a chieftain in jail, but is a process of reconciliation between Colombians," he said.
Formed in the 1980s to battle Colombia's Marxist rebels in the absence of a strong central government, the AUC has largely morphed into a drug trafficking ring and has been blamed for numerous rights abuses.
Around 3,000 paramilitary fighters have surrendered their weapons since the peace process started two years ago. Caramagna said he expects another 1,100 paramilitaries to surrender their weapons by the end of the year.