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Colombia chief proposes amnesty for death squads

But proposal faces serious objections, even from Uribe allies

BOGOTA, Colombia — President Alvaro Uribe, who enjoys strong public support for vowing to bring order to Colombia, is proposing a law that would effectively grant impunity to right-wing death squads that lay down their arms.

Many Colombians support Uribe, whose approval rating is 65 percent, because of his reputation as an uncompromising wartime president determined to win Colombia's 39-year conflict. But his legislation, backed by the Bush administration, faces serious objections from even his allies. It is Uribe's first significant political challenge since taking office 13 months ago.

The proposed law would allow militiamen from the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to avoid jail for widespread human rights abuses that include the mass killings of thousands of villagers and the assassination of two presidential candidates.

The group's leaders, several already convicted in absentia for murder, would instead be compelled to admit their crimes and make symbolic acts of contrition, compensating victims by providing community services, turning in their land and paying fines.

In exchange, the militia — a private, anti-guerrilla army financed through cocaine trafficking and donations from wealthy Colombians — would make peace.

Uribe, known as a tireless pragmatist, says the plan would deactivate a brutal confederation of regional factions with 13,000 armed fighters, saving lives and giving two leftist guerrilla groups that continue to wage war an incentive to negotiate since they, too, could be covered by the proposed law.

The proposed law appears to contradict U.S. policy in Colombia — the State Department lists the Self-Defense Forces as a terrorist group, and a federal court in Washington last year indicted three leaders for trafficking cocaine.

Western diplomats here and U.S. officials who work on Colombia policy, though, say the United States has not only offered support for Uribe but also has been consulted as his administration drafted the legislation.

"Everybody here understands that you're not going to do a peace process unless you have some sort of arrangement," a Bush administration official who has helped shape policy toward Colombia said by telephone from Washington.

Uribe's legislation, critics say, amounts to peace at any price.

"The bill opens the door to impunity because it throws out jail time and allows those responsible not to serve a single day in prison," said a recent statement from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Michael Fruhling.