January 8, 1999
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia (CNN) -- Negotiators from the Colombian government and the leftist rebel group FARC will meet Saturday to discuss an agenda and timetable for peace talks aimed at ending a bloody 34-year conflict.
But after FARC leader Manuel Marulanda failed to show up for the formal start of peace talks Thursday, embarrassing President Andres Pastrana, many Colombians remain deeply skeptical of the chances for success.
A poll published Friday in the newspaper El Espectador showed that half of Colombians questioned believe the peace talks will drag on indefinitely, while another 27 percent see them going nowhere. Only 23 percent believe they will lead to peace.
Nearly six in 10 Colombians believe FARC has no interest in peace.
In contrast, Pastrana said Friday that he remained "very optimistic" about the peace process.
"We achieved the most important thing, which was to establish the negotiating table. And FARC was there," he said.
Just why Marulanda didn't show up for Thursday's opening ceremony remained in dispute. FARC leaders said he didn't appear because of an assassination plot. But some observers believe Marulanda -- a self-educated peasant who has spent most of his life in hiding -- was simply stricken with stage fright.
"(He) doesn't feel comfortable in such a formal and ceremonious atmosphere," former Defense Minister Gen. Alvaro Valencia Tovar told the El Tiempo newspaper.
However, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega -- who spent Thursday night at Marulanda's jungle hide-out -- said rebels had provided him "clear proof" that an assassination plot was afoot.
Meanwhile, as the government was sitting down with the leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary forces killed 22 people in scattered attacks, bringing the number who have died in rightist violence in the past month near 50.
On Thursday, men believed to be members of a paramilitary group swarmed the town of Curumani, about 495 kilometers (300 miles) north of Bogota, burning farmhouses and killing 11 people.
Suspected rightists also attacked five towns in central Antioquia state Thursday, killing at least 11 people, according to state police spokesman Haten Dasuki.
Formed by landowners and drug traffickers to fight guerrilla kidnappings and extortion, the paramilitary groups often target civilians they suspect of collaborating with the rebels.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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