Hope has been rekindled in Colombia over the future of its troubled peace process after leftist rebels agreed Friday to begin immediate cease-fire negotiations with the government, and to scale-back kidnappings. Reaction to the development has been generally positive, though some sectors remain skeptical.
Negotiators from the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, unveiled the nine-point accord late Friday following two-days of intensive talks in the rebel enclave in southern Colombia.
The accord breaks new ground by setting up a new agenda for negotiations to include immediate talks on a cease-fire to end the violence that now claims the lives of some 3,500 people a year. The guerrillas also agreed to stop its roadside kidnappings, known as "miracle fishing", by which the FARC raises some of the money it uses to fight the Colombian government. For its part, the government agreed to increase its efforts against rightwing paramilitary groups.
Initial reaction from various sectors has been positive. Leading Presidential candidate Horacio Serpa, long a critic of the government's policy toward the FARC says if everything agreed to is carried out, it would be a "significant advance." Mr. Serpa, who was prevented by the FARC from leading a caravan into the rebel zone a week ago, said he is especially pleased to see that among the nine points are guarantees that political candidates will be able to campaign freely in the enclave.
The agreement was reached amidst mounting pressure on President Andres Pastrana not to extend the term of the rebel safe haven, which expires Tuesday, unless he received tangible concessions from the FARC Colombia's largest guerrilla group.
Outrage over the recent murder of former Culture Minister Consuelo Araujo who had been kidnapped by the FARC last month and the FARC blockade against Mr. Serpa's caravan spurred growing calls on Mr. Pastrana to dissolve the zone.
Analyst Daniel Garcia Pena says the FARC appears to have felt the pressure both domestically and internationally - to make concessions. But he also sees Friday's accord as a sign that elements of the FARC want the peace process to continue.
"It was not only pressure, it reflects that there is a process going on within the FARC and that even though the hardliners [in the FARC] had been having the upper hand recently there was a growing feeling that unless they really moved forward with some form of tangible agreement the process itself was at stake and at risk, and this also shows there is a real commitment with the process on the part of the guerrillas," says Mr. Garcia Pena.
One of the first tests will be how quickly the two sides can move forward on a cease-fire. A member of the government-rebel advisory commission that first proposed the cease-fire, Carlos Lozano, says there should be no deadline imposed for reaching a truce. But Mr. Lozano tells VOA the atmosphere is such that the two sides should move quickly.
He says what is important in Friday's accord is the agreement to open immediate cease-fire talks, and this should be resolved over the short-term. Maybe not in a month or 15 days, but soon he says. After a cease-fire agreed to, he says, then the two sides can move forward on all the political and social issues that have given rise to the Colombian conflict.
Mr. Lozano is one of three members on the advisory commission that was formed earlier this year to help move the peace process forward. On Saturday, one of the members, Alberto Pinzon, announced he is leaving the country because of death threats issued by rightist paramilitaries. Mr. Pinzon and Mr. Lozano were the two representatives on the commission named by the FARC.
Not all Colombians are welcoming Friday's accord. A leading Congressman, Guillermo Gaviria, says while the agreement contains some important elements, it does not constitute real progress. Quoted by the El Tiempo newspaper, Mr. Gaviria said he does not believe the Colombian people are satisfied with the accord because it contains nothing new in relation to what has been discussed for over the past three years.
President Pastrana created the demilitarized zone in southern Colombia in late 1998 as a pre-condition for opening peace talks with the FARC. However, the rebels have used the zone which is the size of Switzerland - to strengthen their forces, hold kidnap victims, and launch incursions against government forces outside the safe-haven. There are also indications that the FARC, which imposes a tax on the drug trade, has allowed drug production and trafficking to flourish within the region.
Prior to Friday's agreement, a public opinion poll showed 61 percent of Colombians favored abolishing the rebel enclave because of the lack of progress in the peace process. But now with Friday's accord, it is virtually certain President Pastrana will agree to extend the term of the demilitarized zone for another few months.