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Colombians Pray for Peace - 2001-10-08

In religious services held throughout the country Sunday, Colombians prayed for peace and an end to the 37-year guerrilla conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead. Church bells tolled throughout Colombia at noon Sunday, summoning worshippers to pray for peace. In Bogota's main Cathedral, hundreds people attended the special mass observing a minute of silence for prayer and reflection.

The appeals for peace and reconciliation were repeated in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the South American nation, as people from all walks of life prayed for an end to the country's decades long conflict.

Sunday's mass prayers came two days after the government and rebels of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, agreed to a nine-point accord to revive the faltering peace process. Among the nine points - both sides have agreed to immediately start cease-fire talks, and the FARC has promised to scale-back kidnappings.

One of Sunday's worshippers, Susana Crosswhite Vazquez, says the accord makes her more hopeful about the prospects for peace. She said she is especially encouraged by the FARC's promise to stop its roadside kidnappings known as "miracle fishing", or "pesca milagrosa" in Spanish. She called it a first step.

It was the deadly results of one such roadside kidnapping late last month that plunged the peace process into its deepest crisis since it began more than two and one half years ago. FARC rebels kidnapped former Culture Minister Consuelo Araujo, and then shot and killed her as they were being pursued by Colombian troops. Her murder, just over a week ago, came on the heels of a move by the rebels to prevent a caravan led by the country's leading presidential candidate from reaching the FARC-controlled demilitarized zone in southern Colombia.

Both incidents generated outrage, and growing calls on President Pastrana not to renew the term of the rebel safe-haven, which expires Tuesday. Mr. Pastrana created the enclave in late 1998 to open peace talks with the FARC.

A retired businessman who preferred to use only his first name, Ricardo, reflects the views of many in Colombia, when he criticizes what he says has been a lack of progress in the peace process. "The only achievement has been to open a dialogue," he says. "But the government has shown it does not know how to deal with the guerrillas. Instead," he says, "the rebels have taken advantage of the government, just like a thief takes advantage of an honest person."

Since 1998, the FARC has used the zone to strengthen its forces, launch incursions against government troops outside the area, and allowed the drug trade to flourish in the region. Opinion polls taken before Friday's agreement showed 61 percent of Colombians were opposed to renewing the term of the demilitarized zone. But the Pastrana government views the nine-point accord reached Friday as breaking new ground, and offering fresh hope for peace, in a war that claims the lives of some 3,500 people a year. Because of Friday's agreement, it is now virtually certain President Pastrana will extend the demilitarized zone. What is not known is for how long.