Colombia's Marxist rebels have declared the three-year peace process in their country at an end and have begun preparations to abandon the safe zone in the southern part of the country. Colombian President Andres Pastrana has given the rebels until 2130 UTC Colombia time Monday to move out of the area. An escalation of the 38-year-old conflict now appears unavoidable.

Leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, say they will leave the safe haven that was granted to them by the government in 1998 as an incentive to engage in peace talks. The rebels blame President Pastrana for closing off further chance for dialogue. Meantime, thousands of Colombian army troops have taken up positions just outside the zone and are expected to move in after the deadline expires Monday night.

While the FARC forces are expected to quickly pull out of the five main towns in the zone, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, they will likely hold on to smaller villages and jungle areas. Military experts believe the rebels will then engage in guerrilla operations against the army. But some experts believe the war could also spread well beyond the southern region as the peace process completely breaks down.

United Nations special envoy James LeMoyne remained in the rebel zone on Sunday, but there was no sign that he was making progress in trying to get the government and rebels back into peaceful dialogue.

Residents of the region are expressing fear that they will be caught in a three-way exchange of fire between the rebels and the army and the right-wing paramilitary groups that could now enter the zone. The paramilitary groups operate on their own, but some human rights groups say the groups often coordinate their anti-rebel actions with the army. Human rights groups accuse the paramilitaries of carrying out mass executions and other abuses in the countryside where they operate.

The peace process in Colombia that began with the creation of the rebel safe haven three years ago has produced little in terms of a definitive settlement. Critics of the policy say the rebels exploited the zone to strengthen their forces while safe from army attacks.

Last week, President Pastrana warned the rebels that if they did not return to the peace talks they abandoned in October he would abolish the safe haven. The rebels offered a 14-point proposal late Saturday, but President Pastrana called that insufficient and went ahead with his call for the rebels to leave the zone.