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Colombia Leader Rejects Rebels' Peace Proposal


LOS POZOS, Colombia — President Andres Pastrana rejected a last-ditch proposal to save Colombia's shattered peace process late Saturday, thrusting the country to the brink of an all-out civil war.

Pastrana's decision means that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been given 48 hours, ending Monday, to leave the zone that they have made their de facto headquarters for the last three years.

Pastrana told a nationwide broadcast audience that the rebels' final statement contained no new concrete proposal to restart the peace negotiations.

"For the national government, it is not satisfactory," Pastrana said. "What the country and the president were expecting was a clear and direct response."

The president was responding to a 14-point FARC proposal produced after two days of meetings with a U.N. negotiator that ended with a 10-hour session Saturday.

Rebel leaders could not be reached for comment. But earlier in the day, they said the peace process was in the hands of the president.

"We are here waiting for the president's decision with respect to the future of the process of dialogue and negotiation," Joaquin Gomez, a FARC negotiator, said before Pastrana's broadcast.

James LeMoyne, the U.N. negotiator, characterized the talks as "'difficult."

"This effort was not easy. It's still not easy. But I still have hope," said LeMoyne, who looked exhausted.

Though the fighting has continued during the peace talks, the end of the zone could mean a violent new surge in a nearly 40-year conflict that already costs 3,500 lives a year.

Pastrana appeared to leave a small sliver of hope that peace talks could resume if the guerrillas took concrete action to advance the process.

"Colombians want effective results," he said.

The army and the rebels have used the three years of talks to build up their forces. The FARC rebels are estimated to earn up to $500 million a year from taxing cocaine production and kidnapping. Their army, now the largest in Latin America, has an estimated 17,000 combatants, more than double from a decade ago.

The Colombian army has increased the number of professional soldiers and bought millions of dollars of new equipment, including dozens of Black Hawk helicopters to transport rapid-strike forces across the nation's vast jungles.

Violent right-wing paramilitary groups have begun moving into nearby towns, killing citizens and public figures, and would probably rush into the zone if it were dismantled.

The roots of the recent rupture in the peace process lie in new restrictions that Pastrana imposed over a demilitarized zone in Colombia's southern jungles that was created three years ago and ceded to the rebels to start the process.

Accusing the FARC of using the zone to train soldiers, imprison kidnapping victims and launch military operations, Pastrana in October stepped up military patrols and increased air force surveillance flights.

FARC officials froze talks and demanded that Pastrana revise the restrictions to guarantee the rebels' safety. But Pastrana said the restrictions were nonnegotiable and broke off talks.

He initially gave the rebels 48 hours to leave the zone, then acceded to a U.N. request for two more days of negotiations.

LeMoyne flew into the zone Friday, spending the night with the rebels. The two parties reportedly exchanged bottles of aged whiskey in a show of friendship. The rebels brought out portable lights to continue meeting after dark.

Throughout the day, as parrots flew overhead and a horde of media representatives crowded against a chain-link fence to watch, the men huddled in conversation. LeMoyne frequently emerged to consult with Pastrana by phone. Finally, just after 9:30 p.m., LeMoyne and the rebels emerged with the draft document in hand.

In the document, the rebels promised to immediately discuss some of the most controversial points of the peace process, such as a cease-fire, an end to kidnapping and concrete government action against right-wing paramilitary groups. Previously, they had insisted on waiting until later this year to address those points.

They also promised to activate two previously created commissions to review complaints of any acts that might create barriers to the peace process. The first would handle complaints within the zone, and the second would handle complaints about the ability of foreigners to enter the zone.

These were seen as parallel tracks to the peace process, in which the FARC would be able to raise specific concerns, for instance, about the air patrols or paramilitary incidents.

Though the document contained few new proposals, there was no specific mention of the FARC's concerns about the security restrictions.

One FARC official was careful to note, however, that the document was a work in progress.

"It's only a draft, it's only a draft," said Andres Paris, a FARC negotiator.

LeMoyne said the guerrillas' draft represented a sincere effort to work toward peace. "The draft reflects what the FARC were able to do," he said.

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