BOGOTA - President Alvaro Uribe's government plans to arm 15,000 peasants to
support the armed forces in the fight against outlawed rebel and paramilitary
groups, Colombia's defense minister said yesterday.
The recruits will receive military training and a small salary paid for by a new 1.2 percent war tax being imposed on higher-income businesses and individuals, Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez said in a radio interview. The recruitment is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The government is obtaining cost estimates for assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, and grenade launchers from US and European arms manufacturers, according to news reports. Uniforms and boots are also being made for the mainly poor farmers, who will live in their homes and protect their own neighborhoods.
Analysts and human rights monitors say the plan risks turning civilians into targets of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, or the paramilitaries.
''You are turning these people - as a legal matter, as a practical matter - into combatants,'' said Arturo Carrillo, a professor and human rights law specialist at Columbia University in New York. ''If and when the FARC starts going after these people, they will not be in violation of international law.''
The fighting pits the FARC and another leftist guerrilla group against Colombia's US-backed military and the right-wing paramilitaries.
In theory, government forces are to back the peasant soldiers in the event of an attack. But there are no government forces in 186 of the 1,000 counties, with just a few soldiers in 227 others.
Uribe, who took office on Aug. 7 amid a rebel mortar bombardment in Bogota, has vowed to nearly double the number of professional police and soldiers by 2006.
Inducting peasants complements this effort, Ramirez said. ''In this way we will achieve a greater presence, but there will also be more professional soldiers.''
Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington criticized the plan.
''I can see why it makes sense, because there are so few good options right now,'' he said. ''But the probability of this blowing up in their face is way too great.''
Rebels could also mark the new soldiers by their uniforms, attack their homes, and steal weapons, Isacson said.
As a state governor in the mid-1990s, Uribe championed armed vigilante groups. But they were allegedly infiltrated by a paramilitary group to target suspected rebel collaborators.
Uribe won a landslide victory on a pledge to get tough with both the rebels and the paramilitaries. He decreed emergency powers to impose the tax and expand security forces.
His moves have raised concern about an escalation of the 38-year war that has killed nearly 3,500 people each year.
''It is worrisome that we keep arming the country,'' said Ana Teresa Bernal,
director of Redepaz, a nonprofit peace group. ''The violence has brought us to
such a dramatic state.''
© Copyright 2002 The Associated Press