Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Wednesday, 27 August 2008 11:31 UK

Colombia seeks rebels' surrender

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Guaduas del Carmen de Atrato

While the prospect of peace talks with Colombia's main guerrilla armies remains remote, a tiny splinter group has surrendered, presenting the government with an alternative strategy to pressure rebel units into abandoning the 44-year civil conflict.

Olimpo de Jesus Sanchez Caro (left) commander of the Revolutionary Army Guevarista (ERG) hands over his weapon to Luis Carlos Restrepo, on 21 August 2008
The last remaining 45 rebels of the ERG handed over their arms

"We believe it is possible to negotiate with individual blocs and fronts and offer them a dignified way out," said Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo.

He was speaking after presiding over the demobilisation of the Guevarista Revolutionary Army (ERG), a splinter group of the larger National Liberation Army (ELN).

Although there is no dialogue with the ELN and the more powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) leadership, the government is now seeking to use the ERG model and apply pressure on individual guerrilla units to negotiate and surrender.

'Changing world'

The area around Carmen de Atrato, in the province of Choco on Colombia's Pacific coast, is perfect guerrilla country.

The hamlet of Guaduas is in a valley cutting through the Andes. Clouds hug the heights making the area almost invisible from above, so neutralising the state's great advantage of air power.

It was here that the ERG was born in 1993 and its last remaining 45 fighters laid down their arms on 21 August.

Led by Olimpo Sanchez Caro, alias Cristobal, who broke with the ELN insisting it was not radical enough, the ERG was essentially a family business, with much of the leadership coming from the Sanchez Caro family.

Photo released by Colombia's Peace Commissioner's Office shows rebels walking to hand in their arms
Demobilised rebels now need to be reinserted into civilian life

Five of the family delivered their weapons to Mr Restrepo.

"The world has changed and we cannot remain indifferent to the changes in Colombia," said Cristobal. "Ten or 15 years ago the people applauded the armed struggle in Colombia. Now they reject it."

The group's second-in-command, known as Sandra, spoke of intense war fatigue.

"We are tired on the war, and we have been under pressure from the army, the Farc and the ELN," said Sandra, who has 14 years of combat experience.

"It was pointless to see our people continuing to die."

Most of those handing over their weapons were very young, like 20-year-old Cristal who joined the group after falling in love with one of the Sanchez Caro brothers, Lizardo.

She was a minor when she first took up arms and now with almost three years in the ERG she saw little option apart from surrender or death:

"When I joined you could move around quite freely in and out of villages. Now the army is all around, and the local population are afraid to help us. There was no future for us."

Surrender benefits

The military adopted a two-pronged approach with the ERG, tightening the stranglehold around their zone of operations, while contacting the group through the Roman Catholic Church and local people.

Their surrender was negotiated over eight months. Under the government's controversial amnesty legislation, the Peace and Justice Law, initially designed to demobilise right-wing paramilitaries, the ERG fighters will receive a maximum of eight years in prison.

Sandra (left) and Cristobal (right) as they demobilise on 21 August 2008
Sandra and Cristobal said they did not want to see more of their comrades die

Only six members of the group have charges pending, the rest will now enter government training programmes for reinsertion into civilian life. Those most likely to spend the full eight years in prison are Cristobal and Sandra, who face charges of kidnapping, extortion, murder and recruitment of minors.

"This is a model that we can use against isolated Farc and ELN units," said Gen Juan Pablo Rodriguez, commander of the Fourth Brigade that led operations against the ERG.

"Now the local guerrilla commanders have little contact with the high command and in some cases feel abandoned. They can surrender and get government benefits or be killed in military operations."

Prisoner exchange

The Farc have suffered a series of blows this year, among them the death of legendary leader and founder Manuel Marulanda, the killings of two top commanders and the rescue of 15 hostages in their care, the most famous being French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt.

However the new Farc leader, who is known as Alfonso Cano, has given no sign he is ready to talk.

He recently released a communique saying that the Farc is still intent on conducting a prisoner exchange - the remaining 29 high-profile hostages they hold for hundreds of rebels in prison.

A woman rebel sits deep in thought as she demobilises on from ERG ranks on 21 August
Many face the challenge of returning to civilian life after years as a rebel

The Farc, believed to be around 9,000-strong, has been accused of carrying out a recent series of bomb attacks against civilian targets.

The smaller ELN, perhaps 3000-strong at most, was in talks with the government of President Alvaro Uribe under the watchful eye of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Despite more than two years of meetings, nothing concrete was ever achieved and dialogue broke down after the Colombian government cancelled the mediation role of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela last year.

So with the door to peace talks firmly closed at the moment, the government is pursuing its approach of targeting small, often isolated, rebel groups, using pressure and the prospects of government benefits, encouraging mass desertion.

Officials say the strategy is working, with more than 1,500 guerrillas having surrendered so far this year, an average of 10 rebels a day abandoning the conflict.

The guerrilla armies are continuing to recruit forces, particularly minors.

The rebels, feeling increasing trapped, appear to be lashing out more against the civilian population, continuing and feeding the violence.

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