In Colombia, the government and leftist rebels have agreed to resume peace talks, just hours before government troops were to have entered the rebel zone in the southern part of the country. International supporters of the peace process played a key role in rescuing the South American nation from what likely would have been a violent escalation in the war.
Speaking on national television, Monday night, Colombian President Andres Pastrana said he suspended the military operations aimed at retaking the rebel safe haven. He says the clear, public statement from the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, had put the negotiating process back on track.
He says the FARC has agreed to an immediate resumption of negotiations focusing on the issues defined in a previous round of talks. The president says the first issues will be discussed would be a cease-fire and an end to rebel kidnappings and attacks on civilians.
President Pastrana emphasized the FARC leaders had clearly accepted the government security measures around the area. In October, the rebels broke off talks because of government military flights over the zone and troop concentrations just outside the perimeter.
President Pastrana granted the rebels the safe zone - about the size of Switzerland - in 1998, in an attempt to begin talks aimed at ending the 38-year conflict. But critics say the FARC has used the zone as a staging ground for attacks, kidnappings and drug-trafficking. In his speech Monday, President Pastrana noted the deadline for renewing the safe zone is Sunday, January 20. He suggests he could still decide to retake the zone, if the rebels fail to fulfill the pledge they made.
The last-minute rescue of the faltering peace process was carried out by representatives of the United Nations, the Catholic Church and ambassadors from ten nations who went to the rebel zone. Observers here expect more such international involvement in the Colombian peace process in the days and weeks ahead.