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Colombia Breaks Off Peace Talks

Conflict: FARC rebels, however, say they aren't leaving a special zone despite evacuation order.


BOGOTA, Colombia — The Colombian peace process collapsed Wednesday, sparking fears of a bloody new chapter in this country's long civil war.

In a nationally televised address, President Andres Pastrana announced that the government is breaking off talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

Pastrana said the leftist rebels weren't negotiating in good faith and gave the group 48 hours to evacuate a demilitarized zone created three years ago for the talks.

"The FARC continue putting obstacles before the peace process, making it impossible to continue advancing in the process," Pastrana said. "It takes two to negotiate."

Military officials were on high alert and reportedly began planning to retake the Switzerland-sized zone ceded to the FARC when the talks began in January 1999.

In statements earlier in the day, FARC officials said that they wanted to continue to negotiate and that the government's actions were a pretext for invading the zone.

"We are going to continue staying here as we have," Raul Reyes, the FARC's spokesman, said in a telephone interview.

The breakdown stems from restrictions Pastrana imposed in October after he accused the FARC of abusing the zone by using it as a haven for kidnapping and military training.

The FARC broke off talks at the time after Pastrana ordered Colombian air force jets to begin patrolling the zone, sent more troops to the region and restricted the entry of foreigners. The rebels accused the government of unilaterally changing the conditions that guaranteed their safety.

The restrictions came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., which led to a noticeable hardening of the Colombian government's rhetoric against the FARC.

Pastrana left a slim chance for the guerrillas to rescue the negotiations, saying that although the restrictions aren't negotiable, the FARC could make concessions to restart the process.

"The future is in your hands," he said.

Earlier in the day, the government's chief negotiator, Camilo Gomez, said the FARC had asked for time to leave the zone. That brought angry denials from the FARC.

"He lied to the country and the international community," Reyes said.

The roller-coaster peace process has often seemed at the point of collapse, but Wednesday was the first time that either side had spoken of vacating the zone 200 miles south of Bogota, the capital, which has been key to the negotiations.

Although Colombia's civil war has continued during the peace talks, their collapse would almost certainly signal the beginning of a new stage of a conflict that costs 3,500 lives each year.

Both sides have spent the last three years strengthening their hands. The FARC, increasingly involved in the country's lucrative drug trade, has spread throughout the country and now has about 17,000 combatants. The armed forces have received millions of dollars in U.S. aid and military training as part of anti-narcotic efforts.

With fears of open warfare sweeping Bogota, peace groups met to demand last-minute intervention from a third party such as the United Nations, a step the FARC has adamantly opposed since talks began.

Civil Groups Plan to Stage Demonstration

Daniel Garcia Pena, chief peace negotiator under a former government, said civil groups plan to hold an emergency demonstration in front of the offices of the United Nations.

"I'm very worried," Garcia Pena said. "This is definitely much more serious than anything else that has come before."

Critics of the government's decision were in short supply. Pastrana, who is barred from running in a presidential election later this year, met with the major candidates before making his address.

All of the candidates acknowledged the FARC's intransigence, but most said they hold out hope for the future.

"I am not resigned as a citizen, nor as a politician nor as a candidate for the presidency, that the only alternative for Colombia's future is war," said Horacio Serpa, the leading candidate in the race.

Although Colombians have become increasingly fed up with the fruitless negotiations, the reality of a complete breakdown seemed to bring a sharp realization of the grim road ahead.

Residents of the five villages in the zone said they were frightened at the possibility of a military conflict breaking out around them. There were reports that both FARC officials and government workers in the zone had begun packing up equipment to leave.

"I prefer an uncertain peace process to an uncertain war," said Luis Eduardo Garzon, a presidential candidate from one of Colombia's left-leaning political parties.

Hope-Imbued Process Yielded Few Results

Pastrana won election in 1998 largely on the promise that he would begin peace talks to end the four-decade civil war.

He immediately ceded the demilitarized zone to the rebels, removing all traces of the police and military and creating an autonomous state.

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