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Colombia, Rebels Set New Talks

Latin America: Accord comes just hours before troops were to retake zone ceded to guerrillas.


LOS POZOS, Colombia — The government and rebel leaders reached a last-minute accord Monday to restart peace talks, pulling Colombia back from the brink of a full-blown war.

A group of 10 ambassadors persuaded the two sides to end their standoff only hours before a deadline for troops to retake a demilitarized zone that the government ceded to the country's largest rebel army--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC--three years ago for peace negotiations.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana maintained a hard line toward the guerrillas, however, insisting that they take explicit steps toward peace.

"The process is only justifiable if it produces concrete results," Pastrana said in a nationally televised address. "Colombians are not going to recover their faith in the FARC's word and willingness for peace with today's declarations."

Pastrana said that talks will begin again immediately in an effort to reach a precise timetable for discussing such controversial measures as a cessation of hostilities, a ban on kidnappings and an end to attacks against the country's infrastructure.

But he warned that he might not extend the life of the zone created for the peace talks after Jan. 20, a previously scheduled deadline.

There is "less than a week to decide whether we prolong the zone. We haven't arrived at that end," Pastrana said. "It's the moment to advance with concrete acts of peace."

Still, the diplomats from 10 so-called facilitator countries said they were relieved to have at least put the negotiations back on track and stopped the country from plunging into a bloody new chapter of its civil war.

"The clock has stopped," said Daniel Parfait, the French ambassador who headed the group of diplomats who undertook a last-minute trip to the zone to save the peace process. "We have an agreement between both parties."

Camilo Gomez, Colombia's top negotiator, appeared relieved and said the two sides will now get back to trying to end the country's 38-year-old internal conflict.

He gave no timetable for renewed negotiations, nor did he say when the country could expect to see concrete results, such as a cease-fire.

"We must begin to quickly firm up accords to reduce the conflict," Gomez said. "It is going to be a lot of work, not only for the negotiating table but for the whole country."

Despite the new start, the two sides were no closer to a final peace agreement. Monday's achievement guaranteed only the continuation of roller-coaster negotiations that have frequently broken down in the past.

Skepticism remained over whether the two sides would even negotiate in good faith. Many Colombians believe the FARC uses the zone to build up its forces, which now number 17,000. The FARC also has used the zone to hide kidnap victims, provide military training and transport, and protect cocaine shipments.

Critics of the peace process say the Colombian military is also biding its time, growing stronger as it receives money from a $1.3-billion U.S. aid package intended to improve its capability to fight narcotics trafficking.

One diplomat present at the talks called the return to the peace process a "face-saving" measure and warned of future troubles.

"The government doesn't trust the FARC, and the FARC don't trust the government," the diplomat said. "'It's unclear what the goals of the negotiations are."

Another diplomat credited the emergency talks with improving the chances of international participation in the peace negotiations, a step that both the FARC and the government have long resisted. But he too expressed skepticism about the future of the negotiations.

"We've overcome a big hurdle, but it's only for today. Tomorrow, they have to show they can negotiate," said a diplomat who participated in the talks.

But U.N. special envoy James LeMoyne said he was hopeful that the peace process would now advance. The agreement reached Monday also provides for the presence at future negotiations of LeMoyne and two of the 10 ambassadors.

Colombians reacted with relief and joy as news spread that the country had averted a new wave of violence in a conflict that already costs thousands of lives each year.

Much of the country had seemed to throw its weight behind the last, desperate effort to resuscitate the talks, no matter how far apart the sides. From the soaring high-rises in the capital, Bogota, to corrugated tin shacks in dusty frontier towns, Colombians were riveted to television sets to find out whether the nation would return to all-out warfare.

Talk shows were filled with pleas for peace. Senators and union leaders urged reconciliation. Even Carlos Castano, the head of one of the nation's violent right-wing paramilitary groups, asked for the rebels to return to negotiations, promising that his group would give up arms if the FARC would also.

A crowd of more than 200 men, women and children who had gathered under a hot sun to watch the negotiations let out loud cheers as Parfait read the announcement that talks would continue.

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