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Civil War Ends in El Salvador With Signing of Treaty : Peace: President Alfredo Cristiani and 10 guerrilla leaders take part in the ceremony that mixes tears and handshakes. The U.N. will supervise disarmament.

January 17, 1992|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The president of El Salvador and 10 leftist guerrilla leaders shook hands in a tearful encounter Thursday as they signed a treaty ending their tiny Central American nation's 12-year conflict, the Western Hemisphere's bloodiest legacy of the Cold War.

"The conflict is behind us," President Alfredo Cristiani declared at the historic ceremony climaxing 21 months of U.N.-mediated peace talks. "Starting today, we can truly say that Salvadoran democracy belongs to all of us."

The accord, hailed by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as "a revolution achieved through negotiations," sets in motion a formal U.N.-supervised cease-fire starting Feb. 1 and ending with the disarmament of Latin America's most disciplined rebel force by Halloween.

While diluting the extraordinary power of the armed forces in Salvadoran life, it provides full political freedoms and a host of security and welfare guarantees for the demobilized rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Guerrilla commanders declared triumphantly that the treaty's terms vindicated their Marxist-inspired insurgency, which cost an estimated 75,000 lives, wrecked the country's economy and civilian institutions and displaced one-fifth of its 5 million people.

"The FMLN opens its fist and extends a hand of friendship to those against whom we have fought, as is appropriate in an outcome without winners or losers, with the firm purpose of letting the reunification of our country begin," said Schafik Handal, the chief rebel negotiator.

With a glance toward Secretary of State James A. Baker III, he added: "We also extend a hand to the United States government in search of a new relationship based on dignity and cooperation."

Baker, representing a nation that spent $4 billion to try to defeat the rebels, called the treaty "an occasion for celebration." American officials said that Baker, who traveled to El Salvador afterward, came to "make clear to all parties" that Washington backs the accord and will "remain engaged" in the peace process.

Washington is also asking the European Community, Canada, Japan and major Latin American nations to help it provide the estimated $1.8 billion that it estimates is needed to rebuild El Salvador's war-torn economy. Japan has already agreed to cooperate.

The peace ceremony took place in the chilly amphitheater of a 207-year-old Spanish colonial castle on a hilltop in Chapultepec Park, giving the 10 presidents and prime ministers who attended a panoramic view of Mexico City's smog-shrouded skyline.

Seated at parallel tables and facing each other across a riotously colorful bed of pansies, six Salvadoran government negotiators and the 10 rebel leaders signed the 121-page accord, the final details of which were hammered out Tuesday at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Cristiani, who resisted strong pressure from the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance to join two decisive rounds of New York talks, announced before arriving here that he would not sign the agreement. He took a seat on the dais with other heads of state overlooking the rebel and government negotiators.

But after all three leather-bound copies of the accord had been passed around the negotiators' tables, they were carried up to Cristiani, who added his signature. Two hundred dignitaries in the room applauded with astonishment.

In a blunt admission of his country's undemocratic history, Cristiani said that El Salvador lacked "the spaces and mechanisms necessary for the free play of ideas, the absence of a true democratic way of life.

"What we are beginning to do now," he added, "is not the establishment of a pre-existing peace but the inauguration of an authentic peace based on social, political and ideological harmony . . . without any kind of exclusions."

Then the 44-year-old president did something he had never done, not even during his rare interventions in peace talks. He stepped down from the dais and held out his hand to the guerrillas, who stood respectfully, some of them moved to tears.

Handal, a white-bearded Communist who was one of the FMLN's five top military commanders, moved to put an arm around Cristiani, but the president quickly stepped away. But an instant later, coming face to face with guerrilla political leader Ana Guadalupe Martinez, Cristiani was overcome by emotion. Tears welled in his eyes and streamed down his face.

It was an extraordinary scene of reconciliation between the polar extremes of a nation known for its immense gap between rich and poor and the viciousness with which its citizens kill each other.

The Salvadoran conflict exploded after a rightist backlash to the ouster of a military dictator by reformist army officers in October, 1979. With help from Fidel Castro's Cuba and the Sandinista revolutionaries who had seized power in Nicaragua that year, Salvadoran leftists formed a guerrilla force that grew to 8,000 fighters and resisted defeat by a government army swollen to four times its size by U.S. aid.

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