Colombia to renew talks amid right-wing threats
April 19, 1999
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia (CNN) -- Colombia's government and the country's largest guerrilla army are set to renew talks Tuesday, under a cloud of new threats by right-wing paramilitary groups and general public pessimism about the peace process.
"The objective is to progress from talks to negotiations," President Andres Pastrana said in announcing that his delegates would push the representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to set a site, agenda and negotiating points for full-fledged peace talks.
To nudge the rebels toward acceptance, Pastrana offered to extend the demilitarization of a broad area of the country if the guerrillas begin concrete negotiations.
Government-appointed negotiators and rebel leaders have not formally met since late January, when FARC unilaterally suspended talks just days after the formal launch of the peace process, as paramilitary groups massacred more than 160 peasants across the country.
Death squads threaten 'war without quarter'
January's right-wing offensive was widely viewed as an attempt to disrupt the talks. Over the weekend, the death squads threatened to launch a "war without quarter" against the Marxist rebels and civilian sympathizers in the southeastern province of Caqueta.
Unidentified gunmen dumped pamphlets and daubed blood-red anti-guerrilla slogans on the walls of homes and shops in the village of La Esmeralda.
The community lies just outside a Switzerland-sized region that has been cleared of state security forces for the last five months to make way for negotiations to end the conflict.
The threat is meant to warn both FARC not to assert control over the area and civilians not to cooperate with the rebels.
The warnings echo last month's remarks by Carlos Castano, head of Colombia's most-feared right-wing paramilitary gang, who said he would lead an attack on rebels in the demilitarized zone after May 7, when the government troop pullout is officially due to end.
"Our fighters will soon arrive to fight the guerrillas, and from today things must change around here," said a pamphlet bearing the logo of Castano's United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) distributed in La Esmeralda.
"The war without quarter has begun. It's you or us!" it added, warning peasants on pain of death not to collaborate with the rebels or invite them into their houses.
The military responded to the threats by beefing up its patrols of roads and rivers in the area.
As a precondition for beginning substantive talks, FARC leaders demanded a government crackdown on the paramilitaries, who, the rebels say, receive support from elements of the government and the army in a "dirty war" against suspected leftist sympathizers.
Earlier this month, Pastrana fired two army generals, accused of sponsoring paramilitary death squads. State prosecutors, meanwhile, launched a criminal investigation into a third general.
It is unclear whether FARC will accept the action as a sign of Pastrana's willingness to disband Colombia's burgeoning death squads, now estimated to number some 5,000 fighters compared with FARC's 15,000-strong combat force.
While the paramilitary groups threaten to increase their activities, FARC itself has carried out a wave of small assaults in the capital and in the southwest in recent days, which sources close to the rebels suggest could be the prelude to a wider offensive.
Majority in poll distrusts rebels
As a result, expectations are low as the current talks begin.
"Pessimism about the peace process is becoming more acute ... With these actions the public believes less and less in the guerrillas' desire for peace," top columnist Enrique Santos wrote in a recent edition of the leading El Tiempo newspaper.
"The public is calling for fewer concessions to the guerrillas and more iron-fist tactics," he added.
Echoing those views, a Gallup poll published by the respected El Espectador newspaper on Saturday found that two-thirds of Colombians disapproved of Pastrana's handling of the peace process.
Three-quarters said they believed neither FARC nor the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, were really interested in making peace. About half said the guerrillas were still banking on using military might to take power by force and set up a socialist state.
Despite international condemnation of the country's burgeoning right-wing death squads, 68 percent of those polled said the government should not bow to rebel demands to rein in the paramilitary groups. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
FARC attracted international condemnation since the last round of peace talks after one of its units in early March kidnapped and killed three U.S. activists who were helping Colombian Indians defend tribal lands from oil exploration.
Political analysts say the rebels may now look to recover some of their dented political credibility by restarting the peace talks as soon as possible.
However, if Pastrana follows through on his offer to extend the demilitarization period, the move is likely to spark opposition from politicians and military top brass at home and in Washington, which has warned that FARC now poses a serious threat to regional stability.
An open-ended demilitarization would allow the rebels to consolidate control over what is already effectively a guerrilla-ruled enclave spanning some 16,000 square miles (42,000 square kilometers).
Reuters contributed to this report.
Colombian rebels break off peace talks
Republic of Colombia
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