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Rebels Freeze Colombia Peace Talks

Latin America: A leftist guerrilla spokesman says negotiations are off until the government severs ties to illegal ultra-rightist paramilitary death squads.


BOGOTA, Colombia — This nation's beleaguered peace process appeared to sink deeper into a quagmire Tuesday after leftist rebels, accusing the government of maintaining an alliance with right-wing death squads, refused to negotiate further.

Rebel spokesman Andres Paris insisted that Colombia's business groups, church hierarchy and various branches of government have sided with the illegal United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an umbrella organization of ultra-right paramilitary groups known for frequent massacres in poor, rural areas.

"Until the president and his government clarify before the country and the world its official position toward paramilitary terrorism, the current dialogues must be frozen," Paris concluded in a strongly worded, albeit rambling, statement.

Paris' group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced the unilateral suspension just as negotiators were to meet to discuss a possible end to hostilities in Colombia's long-lived civil war. The sluggish talks had already ground to a halt four times in the two years since they began.

With frequent references to an alleged state conspiracy, Paris also repeated the FARC's opposition to U.S. military support for Colombian troops, which is expected to reach unprecedented proportions in coming months.

But he didn't draw a direct link between the break in negotiations and the $1.3 billion in U.S. funding for Andean anti-narcotics efforts over the next two years. The bulk of the money will provide training, helicopters and military intelligence as Colombia prepares to push into the southern drug-producing zone of Putumayo, a region largely controlled by the FARC.

The FARC reserved its sharpest words for Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle. He met last week with paramilitary chief Carlos Castano in what was characterized as a humanitarian gesture to secure the release of several kidnapped lawmakers.

The FARC opposes official dialogue of any kind with Castano or his commanders.

Attending a bishops' conference in this capital city, Fabian Marulanda, the bishop of Florencia, a town on the outskirts of FARC-held territory, characterized the rebel group's latest maneuver as "unjustifiable and unexplainable."

"This is like the behavior of a small child who gets in a huff and who won't talk anymore," he said.

The last impasse in the peace process had come in September, when a FARC prisoner, traveling under guard to a court appearance, hijacked a mid-sized commercial airliner. The prisoner forced the plane to land in the heart of the FARC-controlled zone and, since then, has enjoyed the rebels' protection.

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