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Colombia: Timetable for Peace Negotiations Signed

In Colombia, representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have signed an agreement with the government of President Andres Pastrana that sets a timetable for peace negotiations. The last-minute accord prevented what many feared would be an escalation of the 38-year civil conflict.

Less than four hours before the deadline for an agreement set by President Pastrana was to expire, the rebels and government negotiators announced their timetable and plan for talks.

The timetable includes a number of target dates for completing discussions of such issues as a cease-fire, kidnappings and other action that harm civilians, and the dismantling of anti-rebel para-military groups. The timetable sets April 7 as the deadline for reaching an accord on these issues.

Speaking to the nation shortly after the agreement was announced, President Pastrana extended the 42,000 square-kilometer safe zone for the rebels until April 10, three days after the cease-fire accord is to be signed. Mr. Pastrana told Colombians that he would like to have seen an immediate cease-fire and an end to attacks on civilians, but that he understands that reaching such agreements is a complicated matter that will take time.

He said that today, Colombians have something they have never had before, and something that will give them more confidence in the peace process - specific dates for reaching accords and guarantees. The Colombian president said what has been accomplished in these talks is an important step toward ending the violence that has plagued his nation.

President Pastrana also hailed the role of the international community in helping the two sides come to agreement, and he noted that the agreement reached Sunday provides for continuing international monitoring of the process.

The talks, which were held in the rebel safe zone in southern Colombia, came about as a result of efforts made by United Nations envoy James LeMoyne and ambassadors from ten nations supporting the peace process.

The FARC had broken off negotiations with the government in October, protesting government security measures around the zone and military flights over the territory. On January 12, President Pastrana had given the FARC 48 hours to come up with a new proposal for talks, or, he said, he would abolish the safe zone he had granted them three years earlier as a condition for talks.

Colombian army units took up positions around the zone and many people here feared a major escalation of the war was imminent. That crisis was averted on Monday, January 14, when the FARC agreed to immediate talks, and dropped the complaint about government security measures. The resulting agreement on a timetable for talks represents the most significant advance toward peace in Colombia in nearly four decades of war.