SAN SALVADOR — The Salvadoran government, in a surprise move, said Tuesday that it has agreed to a 10-day holiday cease-fire in the civil war previously approved by leftist rebels.
"On the basis of Christmas spirit and the request of the Salvadoran Catholic Church, the government of the republic decided to suspend offensive actions of the armed forces during the Christmas period," said a statement from the office of President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
But the statement added that the military "will remain vigilant" during the truce, set to last from midnight Tuesday to Jan. 2, because the army has a "constitutional obligation to watch over public security."
Proposed by Archbishop
The cease-fire, proposed Sunday by Roman Catholic Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas and immediately accepted by the rebels, will be the longest truce ever in the six-year-old civil war that has killed at least 55,000 people.
The guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and their political allies in the Democratic Revolutionary Front said they would halt offensive actions during the truce and would fight only if soldiers entered territory they consider under their control. They said they would not interfere with soldiers on leave over the holidays even if their families live in guerrilla-controlled areas.
Cease-fires for both the Christmas and New Year's holidays have been traditional. But the government's acceptance of this truce came as a surprise.
A military observer had said the army was reluctant to agree to a suspension of patrols, counterinsurgency sweeps or air raids.
"We are not dealing with a legitimate military force. We are dealing with terrorists," said the observer, who did not want to be identified. "The army is less willing to accept a truce this year than last. They are not in the mood for it."
But a spokesman for the armed forces said the army will observe the cease-fire.
"If it comes from the commander in chief, as is the president of the republic, it has to be accepted by the institution on a national level," the spokesman said.
Also Tuesday, the guerrillas' clandestine Radio Venceremos said 431 government troops have been killed or wounded so far in December.
But a military spokesman called the figures exaggerated and said the rebels were trying to raise their morale by increasing army casualty figures.
In another development, some 200 members of the Mothers of Political Prisoners and Disappeared People observed the eighth anniversary of the foundation of the organization, which is demanding a government investigation into the whereabouts of 6,000 missing people and freedom for all political prisoners in Salvadoran jails.
"These eight years have not been in vain," said one of the leaders at a ceremony in El Calvario church, near the National Police headquarters. "Many of our friends have died without knowing where their children, husbands or relatives are, but we are conscious that some day someone will do justice for our cause."