Microsoft to Offer Training in Colombia

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara) :: Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe speaks at the Nueva Granada military university in northern Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Oct. 20, 2006.

Updated: 10/23/2006

BOGOTA, Colombia

Microsoft Corp. has agreed to donate more than $300,000 to open computer centers where former paramilitary fighters will receive free training for civilian jobs, the government said Thursday.

The announcement comes after a meeting in New York last month in which President Alvaro Uribe solicited Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' help in reintegrating 30,000 demobilized paramilitaries into the nation's economy.

Frank Pearl, Uribe's new special envoy in charge of generating private-sector employment for the ex-combatants, said eight training centers in former paramilitary strongholds would be opened within three years, offering free job training to more than 2,000 ex-combatants.

''The fact an American company is willing to support Colombia's peace process in such an enduring way sends a powerful message to Colombia's business community,'' said Pearl, the former head of Valorem SA, the country's biggest holding company.

The donation — $234,000 in cash and $77,000 in software — was announced Thursday following a meeting at the presidential palace between Pearl and Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft's international operations.

The contribution from the Redmond, Wash.-based software company will also be used to develop an employment database to track the career ambitions of the former fighters and match their skills with the needs of employers.

Despite having relinquished their weapons as part of a 2003 peace deal, many paramilitaries have had trouble finding work because they lack education and had a violent past.

Human-rights groups and the United Nations complain that many have returned to crime, forming armed gangs that rely on extortion and drug-trafficking. Those that abide by their vows of peace must scrape by on a monthly government stipend of about $150.

During the 1980s, cattle ranchers financed the creation of Colombia's right-wing militias to protect their land holdings against raids from leftist rebels in Colombia's civil war.

But the militias soon morphed into criminal organizations that are blamed for some of the worst civilian massacres in Colombia's history.

The United States considers the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group, a foreign terrorist organization. Several of its leaders are accused by U.S. courts of being among the country's biggest cocaine traffickers.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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