President moving Colombian capital to war-torn Arauca

ARAUCA, Colombia -- Colombia's president transferred the seat of government to a rebel war zone Tuesday to show broadening federal control, while outlawed paramilitary fighters -- avowed enemies of the rebels -- agreed to talk peace with the government.

The three-day move from the capital, Bogota, to an army base in violence-ridden Arauca on the border with Venezuela demonstrates "the solidarity of the nation" with its people, President Alvaro Uribe declared before leaving the capital.

"Peace in Arauca means peace in Colombia," he said on Radio FM.

The rebels are battling the government and right-wing paramilitary groups for control of the oil-rich savannas of Arauca state.

Even as Uribe moved to one of the country's hottest war zones to demonstrate control, both his government and Colombia's primary outlawed paramilitary group agreed to formal peace talks, the president's office said.

Some talks of peace

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, also promised to start demobilizing its 10,000-strong forces by the end of the year, according to a statement posted on the president's office Web site and signed by paramilitary leaders and members of a government peace commission.

"The exploratory phase of the peace process has ended, to give way to a new stage of negotiation," the statement said.

The AUC is an umbrella paramilitary group accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in Colombia's 39-year civil war. The group arose in the 1980s to counter extortion and kidnappings by leftist rebels in rural areas where government troops had little or no control.

Splinter paramilitary groups did not sign on to the statement.

Leaders of the AUC said they wanted to take the appropriate steps to help build the "authentic peace that the Colombian nation waits for and deserves."

For its part, Uribe's government promised to help the demobilized paramilitary fighters reintegrate into regular society.

Civilians, in Arauca and elsewhere, have often been victimized in the violence among the rebels, paramilitaries and government forces.

Last week, a suspected rebel gunmen killed a regional electoral official in Arauca and the army deactivated a "house bomb" filled with explosives in Tame, another violent town in Arauca state. Two electrical towers were downed by suspected rebels in nearby Boyaca state, leaving most of Arauca without electricity last week.

"The president's visit is an act of support for the 300,000 people of Arauca who have been victims of the violence, but who nonetheless have not lost their desire to live on this land," said Arauca state Gov. Oscar Munoz.

The last time Uribe traveled to the region, in October, a rebel car bomb exploded in front of a school in the state capital just hours before Uribe arrived. Two police officers were killed, and a dozen other people wounded.

"I hope this visit doesn't bring more conflict," said Alejandro Rodriguez, 24, who works in a hardware store in Arauca city.

On Tuesday, residents stayed indoors, worried about the possible repercussions of Uribe's latest visit. Some 5,000 police officers and soldiers worked around the clock to secure the city, setting up roadblocks and stopping vehicles to help prevent potential attacks.

Hundreds of taxis, motorcycles and even bicycles were checked for bombs. Authorities prohibited the use of vehicles with dark windows and barred any two people from riding the same motorcycle -- a technique often used by assassins in Colombia.

Men from urban anti-terrorist units patrolled the streets, wearing black sunglasses and carrying automatic weapons. Police officers conducted surprise searches on passers-by, leading to the detention of 17 suspected rebels over the last three days.

Helicopters circled over Arauca's heavily fortified army base, the site of the new, temporary government headquarters. Cooks, secretaries and presidential aides flown in from Bogota hurriedly prepared the base for Uribe, who was to arrive Tuesday afternoon.

Before arriving in Arauca, Uribe visited the nearby Cano Limon oil field, which is run by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. Rebels have frequently bombed Cano Limon's pipeline, which some 70 U.S. Special Forces are in Colombia to help protect.

Later Tuesday, the president also met with his defense minister and the rest of the military brass at the Arauca army base to discuss security in the region.

Other Cabinet members are scheduled to fly in to Arauca over the three-day period.

Since taking office last August, Uribe has made taming Arauca state a priority.