TIBU, Colombia -- The commander of Colombia's paramilitary forces wept and apologized yesterday for his role in a war against Marxist rebels as 1,400 fighters surrendered their weapons in the largest demobilization of an outlawed armed faction in the country's history.
The fighters demobilized at a ranch in remote northeastern jungles near the border with Venezuela, where the main road is marked by crosses, burned vehicles, and blown-up bridges -- the scars of a bitter, protracted battle between the right-wing faction and leftist rebels for control of the local cocaine industry.
''With my soul flooded with humility, I ask forgiveness from the people of Colombia," Salvatore Mancuso told government officials, representatives of the Organization of American States, and heavily armed paramilitary fighters who stood in formation under a sweltering sun.
''I ask forgiveness from the nations of the world, including the United States of America, if by action or omission I offended," Mancuso said, his voice cracking and tears streaming down behind his aviator-style sunglasses.
Mancuso, the chief of the paramilitary umbrella group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, then handed his Beretta 9mm pistol to government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, beginning the formal demobilization of the AUC's Catatumbo Bloc.
Muscular fighters in camouflage uniforms snapped to attention and one by one handed their M-60 machine guns, AK-47 rifles, and grenades to Restrepo.
Restrepo called the ceremony ''a historic event."
''This . . . is now recorded in the memory of Colombians as the largest collective demobilization that has been seen to date in our country," he said, a baseball cap shielding his face from the sun.
Mancuso is wanted in America for trafficking tons of cocaine to US shores. But the Colombian government has given him and other paramilitary leaders safe-conduct passes while they participate in the peace process.
In an interview, Mancuso said he wanted the extradition issue resolved.
''I hope these problems will be solved and that the people of the United States and their government can understand why we were involved in this conflict -- and that we have the will to advance in the construction of peace," Mancuso said.
Restrepo also urged the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel group, and the National Liberation Army to commit to peace. ''The path of violence is a closed one," he said.
President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who has pledged to restore order to this South American nation, said in Bogota this week that government security forces would remain in Catatumbo.
The government has deployed 700 troops and police to maintain order in the wild, isolated area, where dirt roads snake into thick jungle, which are dotted with coca-processing labs.