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Colombian Deadline Approaches, Talks Continue

Colombian government negotiators and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC are preparing for a final day of talks on Sunday to reach an agreement on a timetable for comprehensive peace agreements.

President Andres Pastrana has given the rebels until midnight, Bogota time, Sunday to agree to a plan or he will revoke their safe haven and send in the army.

With only hours left now before President Pastrana's deadline is reached, government negotiators say there has been some progress, but no agreement. The government presented its timetable proposal on Thursday and the rebel representatives have been studying it. Political analysts here in Bogota say the rebel leaders may have trouble selling any proposal to some of the more radical elements within the FARC.

Divisions within the rebel organization may also account for continuing attacks on both military and civilian targets all last week, even as the rebel negotiators were meeting with their government counterparts inside the safe haven.

On Saturday, rebels carried out at least two actions in which at least a dozen soldiers and five policemen died. Earlier in the week, rebels toppled several electric power pylons, damaged a bridge and kidnapped seven tourists. Authorities also accuse the rebels of murdering a priest and two of his cousins at a roadblock on Friday.

Some military analysts say these attacks could be the work of rogue elements opposed to peace talks or actions designed to keep pressure on the government as the talks unfold. Colombian military spokesmen call the rebel attacks "terrorist actions" and condemn the FARC for talking peace while waging war.

High-ranking military officers are said to be displeased with the government's approach to the peace process. The military leaders are anxious to move against the rebels, using some of the equipment and training they have received from the United States under Plan Colombia, an anti-narcotics program.

Critics of the peace process say it is hard to separate the drug fight from counter-insurgency because the FARC obtains most of its funding from drug trafficking.

If the talks fail to produce an agreement on a negotiating timetable by the approaching deadline, an escalation of the 38-year war is certain to follow. The last time there was a rupture in a peace process here in Colombia, in 1992, it took six years to get the process going again. War weary Colombians are hoping that this time the talks will succeed and the process will get back on track.