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Colombian Peace Talks Collapse - 2002-01-10

Colombia's fragile peace process moved to the brink of collapse Wednesday, opening the possibility of all-out war between the military and Latin America's most powerful rebel army. In a move that seems irreversible, the government's peace commissioner has left the peace table, saying he will give the FARC guerrilla group 48 hours to abandon a southern safe haven.

Colombia's peace process has been plagued by suspensions, delays and public skepticism since the beginning. But Wednesday's announcement still took many by surprise.

Speaking to reporters, Peace Commissioner Camilo Gomez said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were to blame for the rupture in talks.

"The government understands that this insurgent group will not continue the peace process" Gomez said, adding that the guerrilla group had asked for 48 hours to surrender a southern peace zone under their control. But the FARC later denied it had asked for a two-day period to withdraw.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana put the nation's armed forces on high alert, and is scheduled to make a televised address later.

If the FARC are in fact willing to leave the military-free zone, its decision could be final. The guerrilla group has been hiding kidnapping victims there, and recruiting troops. By abandoning the zone, which is so useful to them, the FARC could be preparing for all-out war.

President Pastrana withdrew state troops from the area three years ago as a prerequisite to talks. In fact, he has staked his presidency on negotiating an end to Colombia's civil conflict, which is fueled by drug money and claims more than 3,000 lives a year.

The peace talks collapsed amid last-ditch efforts to resuscitate negotiations. The FARC walked away from the peace table in October to protest military controls along the borders of the peace zone. By Friday, those borders may no longer exist.