Colombia's biggest drug gang announces ceasefire

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Bogota (AFP)

Colombia's biggest narcotics gang, the paramilitary Clan del Golfo, has announced it has stopped armed actions to support peace efforts aimed at burying a half a century of conflict between the government and rebel forces.

"We are declaring a unilateral cessation of offensive military actions in all the national territory starting from December 13 this year," the armed wing of the gang, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas of Colombia (AGC), said in a statement.

President Juan Manuel Santos -- who set in motion a UN-monitored peace process with the main FARC rebel group, and is now taking similar steps with the smaller ELN guerrilla organization -- welcomed the announcement.

"Whatever act that decreases violence in this country is welcome. But that does not mean that we will end our pressure on this organization," he said.

His government launched an offensive against the Clan del Golfo in 2015. The outfit, made up of remnants of far-right paramilitaries disbanded in 2006, has been reduced from around 4,000 members to 1,800. In recent months its second-in-charge and his successor have died.

The AGC, long a rival to the leftist FARC and the ELN, said its gesture was meant "to contribute to a full, total and lasting peace."

It called on the FARC, the ELN and other drug gangs to join in its effort in zones where they often clashed.

The Colombian government does not consider the Clan del Golf, which is made up of far-right paramilitaries disbanded in 2006, to be a political actor, unlike the FARC which has reformed itself into a political party.

However, in October officials sent a bill to Congress that would provide for reduced sentences for organized criminal gangs linked to the conflict, and the possibility for their members to keep assets.

The peace accord signed with the FARC in November 2016 ended a conflict that lasted 53 years.

The peace deal stipulates that rebels who confess to their crimes, pay reparations to their victims and promise not to return to violence can receive alternatives to jail time for their wrongdoings.