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New Life Breathed into Colombia's Peace Process - 2001-10-09


New life has been breathed into Colombia's faltering peace process by President Andres Pastrana's decision to extend the term of a rebel sanctuary in southern Colombia. Mr. Pastrana says he based his decision Sunday on an agreement reached between the government and rebels.

Friday's nine-point accord between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) came after two days of intensive talks held inside the rebel enclave in southern Colombia. Among the nine points, the FARC agreed to enter into immediate cease-fire talks and to halt roadside kidnappings. The government agreed to increase efforts to curb right-wing paramilitary groups.

The agreement, which breaks new ground in the two-and-a-half year peace process, was reached under mounting pressure on President Pastrana to dissolve the FARC safe haven, which was set to expire Tuesday. But on Sunday, Mr. Pastrana renewed the zone's term, the eighth time he has done so since it was created in 1998. "The FARC has given its word not to continue with the roadside kidnappings, known as 'miracle fishing'. Taking all this into account," he said, "I have decided to extend the zone until January 20, 2002."

However, the Colombian leader warned he would not hesitate to dissolve the rebel enclave, and send in the army to reoccupy it if the peace talks do not progress.

Mr. Pastrana's decision was welcomed Monday by European diplomats in Bogota. Spanish ambassador Yago Pico de Coana said the extension of the zone and last Friday's accord are positive developments. "This opens the possibility," he said, "of continuing the negotiations. But others criticized the move, including leading opposition politicians who said Mr. Pastrana renewed the zone in exchange for empty promises."

The demilitarized zone was created in November, 1998, to facilitate the peace talks with the FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group. But until now the negotiations have produced few significant results, and the FARC have used the Switzerland-sized enclave to strengthen their forces, hold kidnap victims, and launch incursions against government troops outside the zone. Drug production and trafficking, which the FARC taxes to raise revenues, also have flourished inside the rebel sanctuary.

All this has generated mounting opposition to keeping the safe haven and the peace process alive. The Colombian military has made no secret of its opposition to maintaining the enclave, saying it serves only to strengthen the FARC as a fighting force.

But analyst Arlene Tickner, who heads the International Relations Department at the University of Los Andes in Bogota, believes Mr. Pastrana had no choice but to renew the zone. "Pastrana has basically staked his entire political capital on the peace process and if it does not go forth, he does not really have anything else to show in terms of his government," she said. "So it is certainly not surprising that he is decided to extend the zone for three more months to see if the process goes forth. He is also under enormous pressure from both sides - those in favor of continuing the process and those against continuing it and favoring a more military solution. But I do not think at this point he had any choice but to make the decision that he made."

Mr. Pastrana's term ends next August, when he will hand over the Presidency to whoever is elected in next May's elections. All the leading Presidential candidates have been quite vocal in criticizing Mr. Pastrana's policy toward the FARC a factor that may be having an impact on the rebels.

The guerrillas also may be feeling the pressure from Washington's insistence on labeling the FARC as a terrorist group. Professor Tickner says FARC commanders could be reconsidering their options in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, and the Bush Administration's promise to go after terrorism. "The FARC on the other hand are also under pressure, although they continue to state that they are not going to be bullied into signing any type of agreement that they do not want to," she said.

"Obviously, September 11th as well is a source of concern for them. I think it is quite clear that if the United States and other international actors begin to portray them as a terrorist group, they are going to be more marginalized than they already are and could lose the little support they already have on the part of different European actors and different NGOs," she continued, "and so I think the process is breathing its last gasp and if it does not go forth now, it is not quite clear what is going to happen. I think if there is not small progress this could lend credence to the argument that a military solution has to be sought."

The next step is for the government and rebel negotiators to meet to begin discussions on a cease-fire. If the two sides can reach an agreement, it will be the first concrete measure that can pave the way for ending a 37-year war that has left thousands of people dead. But few in Colombia today have any hope they will soon see an end to the fighting.

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