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Colombia Zone Now Heart of Rebel Problem

S. America: Guerrillas and government came to the brink of war over the territory itself, not because of any issue in the peace negotiations.


SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia — A road leaving this teeming frontier town winds toward a series of cliffs that soar over river gorges. Etched into one cliff, with a sweeping view of wild, unspoiled jungle, lies an emblem of the problems facing Colombia's peace process.

It is a massive sculpture, 30 feet high and 130 feet long, hewn from the rock. The artwork features a winged Manuel Marulanda, the leader of this country's largest rebel group, the FARC, approaching Simon Bolivar, South America's legendary liberator.

Guerrilla workers scrambled to finish the sculpture as the peace process was collapsing around them. They said it was important to show the army who owned this part of Colombia, a demilitarized zone that was ceded to the rebels three years ago to initiate the peace process.

"They might come and destroy it, but we'll just build it back again," one of the workers said as he watched his team carve Soviet-style marching soldiers and a hammer-and-sickle-wielding farmer.

A last-minute diplomatic mission has put the peace process back on course, but it was by no means clear Tuesday where it was heading. That's because the zone itself has become part of the problem. The guerrillas think they own it. And the government--specifically the military--wants it back.

"The zone has been a problem from the start," said Alfredo Rangel, a defense expert and advisor to Colombia's military. "All the problems in the process come from it."

Evidence for that came Tuesday, as troops and tanks continued to surround the zone, even though negotiators had staved off a Monday night deadline to invade it.

Despite fears from negotiators that the military's presence would quash any hopes of productive talks, top defense officials said troops will continue surrounding the zone because another deadline, to end the zone's existence, is approaching Sunday.

"It's going to intensify. The military presence is going to continue," said Vice President Gustavo Bell, who is also the country's defense minister.

The zone was the cause of the near-rupture in the peace process this week. The FARC--Spanish initials for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia--has spent the past three years snubbing President Andres Pastrana from the government-bestowed haven. The rebels assassinated senators and civic officials near the zone. They held captured police and military officials prisoner in the zone. They hid kidnapping victims in specially built wooden houses in the zone. They even used it to land a hijacked airplane.

After the FARC had abused the zone in a particularly spectacular fashion last summer and fall--it allegedly received bomb training there from Irish Republican Army guerrillas and used the area to hide hostages from a mass kidnapping--Pastrana decided to crack down in October.

He began sending more troops to surround the zone. He stopped the entry of foreigners except with permission from the government. And most worrisome of all for the FARC, he began air force patrols.

Pastrana maintains that the patrols have always been in place. But the guerrillas complained to negotiators that the air force was using the patrols to harass them, flying low over their camps.

"The air patrols really bothered them. They weren't sure the government had control" over the military, said one source close to the peace negotiations.

Shortly after the new restrictions, the guerrillas walked out of the talks, saying there were no guarantees for their safety.

Pastrana, who was elected in 1998 largely as a result of his pledge to bring peace to Colombia, has frequently given in during the past three years of talks. But this time, he refused to budge, saying that the restrictions will remain.

Analysts speculated that the sudden resolve was a sign that Pastrana is trying to mollify hard-liners in the military, who have become increasingly powerful.

Others have attributed Pastrana's steel to this year's presidential election. Pastrana is constitutionally barred from running again for office, but his political party's candidate is suffering badly in the polls.

But one participant in the recent negotiations said that Pastrana is simply angry. After tolerating countless embarrassments, he felt he had amply demonstrated his commitment to peace. It was an insult, the official said, that the guerrillas would see the relatively modest security measures as a threat.

And so, the two sides came to the brink of war over the zone itself, not over any issue in the peace negotiations.

Pastrana "feels that he has done more for peace than any other world leader," said one diplomat close to the talks. "We helped [the guerrillas] to see that."

In the final agreement, which Pastrana accepted only half an hour before the army was to invade, the guerrillas agreed that the zone was safe enough for negotiations. But they left many more problems unresolved.

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