Colombia seeks arrest of ex-rebel leader for dodging courts

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A special peace tribunal in Colombia has for the first time ordered the arrest of a former rebel for failing to contribute to reconciliation efforts mandated by the country's peace deal.

Hernan Velasquez for years was one of the most-feared commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who headed an elite unit behind some of the deadliest attacks in the country's half-century conflict. But he laid down his weapon in 2016 along with thousands of other FARC guerrillas as part of the peace deal heralded as the beginning of a new era for the war-torn nation.

Since then he has failed to provide testimony about his war crimes in the peace tribunal's first case looking into guerrilla kidnappings. As a result, magistrates on Friday said he would no longer be eligible for some benefits including protection from jail time. They stopped short of throwing him out of the peace process altogether because there was no evidence he had taken up his arms again.

Better known as El Paisa, a nickname used to describe people from his hometown of Medellin, Velasquez went underground last year with other prominent former rebel leaders to protest the arrest on a U.S. drug warrant of a FARC ideologue who was one of the top negotiators of the landmark accord.

At the time, Velasquez, who faces a number of criminal charges and has already been sentenced to jail for the 2003 car bombing of a Bogota social club, accused the government of failing to live up to its commitments and undermining the peace deal.

"Going clandestine wasn't his only alternative," the court said in its ruling Friday, indicating that it had no information about Velasquez's whereabouts for almost a year.

A court-appointed defense attorney said he hadn't heard from Velasquez either but argued that the former rebel's life was at risk amid a wave of slayings of leftist leaders across the country since the signing of the peace deal.

Conservative President Ivan Duque, who has criticized the peace deal brokered by his predecessor as too lenient with rebels behind scores of atrocities, celebrated the ruling.

"I've ordered our police to capture El Paisa," Duque said in a message on Twitter. "There should be no impunity for crimes against humanity. We must stand up for victims. Our country is calling out for genuine justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of no repetition."