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Colombian far-right gunmen to begin to disband

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BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Hundreds of Colombian paramilitary gunmen will lay down their arms on November 25, the government said on Thursday, announcing the first concrete results of much criticized peace talks with far-right militias.

The Cacique Nutibara Block, whose 800 fighters based in the city of Medellin form part of the illegal 13,000-strong AUC, will disband on that date, the government's Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said in a news release also signed by Medellin's mayor and mayor elect.

The government hopes breaking up the Nutibara will lead to the surrender of the rest of the AUC, or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which is classified as a "terrorist" group by the United States.

The agreement will please President Alvaro Uribe after talks with the paramilitaries had bogged down over U.S. threats to arrest AUC leaders for drug smuggling.

Human rights groups have criticized the negotiations with the AUC, which began as a union of vigilante groups set up by cattlemen and drug traffickers to fight Marxist rebels and has been accused of hundreds of massacres and assassinations.

The paramilitaries have worked with sectors of the armed forces to stamp out guerrillas and several senior officers have been prosecuted for AUC links.

In September, 60 U.S. members of Congress urged Uribe to ensure paramilitaries are held accountable for human rights violations.

The government has sent Congress a bill to allow illegal combatants to stay out of jail by serving house arrest or paying fines. Uribe's bill would also benefit Marxist rebels if they end a four-decade-old war which claims thousands of lives a year.

The U.S. government, which supports Uribe's drive against leftist guerrillas, says it will not drop extradition proceedings against several AUC leaders on drug smuggling charges.

The government had hoped the AUC would start disbanding by September, but paramilitary leaders said the U.S. threats could derail talks.

Washington has not asked to extradite the head of the Nutibara Block -- Luis Fernando Murillo, alias "Don Berna." But U.S. officials say in private he is one of Colombia's biggest cocaine smugglers.

The city of Medellin has promised to fund the rehabilitation of the fighters.

Critics of the peace process say drug trafficking AUC members see it as an opportunity to obtain legal title to their ill-gotten gains and retire. Others suggest petty criminals will pretend to be paramilitaries to obtain financial help, while militiamen carry on as before.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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