Colombian rebels take step toward surrendering weapons

Colombian rebels take step toward surrendering weapons

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LA CARMELITA, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of leftist rebels took an important step in Colombia's peace process Wednesday by starting to give United Nations observers an inventory of the weaponry they will soon surrender.

Under the peace accord with the government, March 1 had been the deadline for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to turn over 30 percent of its arsenal of assault rifles, machine guns and homemade explosives.

But delays setting up the 26 rural camps where nearly 7,000 rebels are now gathered in a sort of limbo on their way back to civilian life has slowed the process, with many rebels complaining that the government isn't following through on its end of the bargain.

La Carmelita, where some 500 members of the FARC's battle-tested Southern Bloc are preparing to demobilize, is one of the more built-up camps. President Juan Manuel Santos visited the area last month and traded handshakes with rebels in tall chef hats taking cooking classes in preparation for life outside the guerrilla ranks.

But even here frustration is running high.

Barracks look like half-built skeletons, so rebels used to living in the protective cover of Colombia's jungles are sleeping under plastic tarps exposed to rain and the scorching sun. The mud-soaked dirt road to the main highway is impossible to traverse except for all-terrain vehicles. Without showers or proper kitchens, the place has the feel of a refugee camp, not a halfway house intended to introduce the benefits of peace to the rebels, many of whom have never set foot in a city.

"The government was only in a hurry to have us lay down our weapons but they have to do their part of the accord, too," said Jorge Tavarich, who joined the FARC as a teenager and has spent the better part of two decades with the insurgency.

"It's not that we are opposed to laying down our arms, we will do it, but we will do it when we see the other side engaging, too," added Martin Corena, commander of the FARC's southern bloc.

Despite the hurdles, the rebels have reiterated their commitment to completing disarmament by June 1, as mandated by the peace accord signed last year in Bogota.

In a show of good faith, they began registering all of their armament with U.N. observers Wednesday, and some 300 rebels who form part of a three-party coordinating committee with the government and U.N. planned to lay down their weapons in a symbolic gesture.

"This process is irreversible," the rebel leader known as Pastor Alape said in Bogota this week.

The government has played down the logistical snags, saying that after a half century of war such small delays are insignificant and don't jeopardize the ultimate goal.

But analysts say the delays getting the camps off the ground — they were supposed to be ready Dec. 31 — bodes poorly for the much more ambitious task of reintegrating the guerrillas into society and state-building in neglected rural areas that are already coming under threat from criminal gangs, drug traffickers and the much-smaller National Liberation Army.

"If such a simple task as setting up a camp is proving so hard, imagine how difficult it will be dealing with thornier issues like eradicating coca crops and land reform," said Ariel Avila, deputy director of Bogota's Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

"It's not the lack of will by the president or government. But the excessive bureaucracy and weight of the Colombian state makes it impossible for things to move forward," he said.

Also causing concern is faltering political support as next year's presidential election approaches. The original deal reached after more than four years of negotiations was rejected by a slim majority of Colombians in a nationwide referendum, though congress later adopted a revised version. Santos, winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, has seen his approval rating slide to 20 percent as corruption scandals and fatigue with the peace process give a boost to his mostly conservative opponents.

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