Scant optimism for Salvador talks. As meeting nears, Duarte and rebels still far apart

Contradictory signals abound as Sunday's talks between the Salvadorean government and rebels approach. Both the government and groups sympathetic to the rebels are planning to mobilize thousands of people in front of the dialogue site. The government is even planning a ``festival for peace'' Saturday and Sunday nights.

Despite the emerging carnival-like atmosphere, however, there have been foreboding signs for the talks.

On Tuesday the rebels broke off preliminary talks in Costa Rica in reaction to a hard-line speech by President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. Flanked by the military leadership at a ceremony at the Ilopango Air Force Base, Mr. Duarte said that he would only participate in the dialogue if each of five guerrilla commanders came. Diplomats say there is too little time left to accomplish that.

Duarte also said that the only topic for discussion at the meeting would be the Central American peace accord, signed in Guatemala by the regions five presidents Aug. 7. Duarte had originally said that arranging the cease-fire called for under the peace accord would be the goal of the talks. The rebels wanted the talks to include other topics.

The rebels accused Duarte of trying to sabotage the dialogue and called off the preliminary talks in Costa Rica until his remarks were clarified. Still, they made it clear that they wanted to go ahead with the talks.

While most observers think Sunday's meeting will take place, diplomats are skeptical that any major breakthroughs will occur. They say the positions of both sides are far apart and unlikely to merge. Duarte is demanding that the rebels lay down their arms and join the ``democratic process.'' The rebels want to be part of a broad coalition government that will call new elections. Duarte says that would violate the 1983 Constitution.

Some analysts see progress as unlikely. ``It's just a propaganda show, from both sides,'' says a European diplomat here. ``People are fed up with the war and any party that wants votes needs to support dialogue. But they [the government] don't want the dialogue to be successful. They want to blame the other side when it fails.'' But, he adds, ``when people realize it was all a big fraud it could be very dangerous.''

A major obstacle to talks, say diplomats, is the powerful, United States-backed Salvadorean Army. Although the Army officially supports Duarte and the dialogue process, many field commanders distrust the rebels. And Army support for dialogue has been weakened by high command attempts to remove the head of the security forces. Although he is being pressured for supporting prosecution of officers accused of massacres, diplomats also see his ouster as a sign of Army opposition to talks.

Although the rightist political parties have also traditionally opposed talks with the leftist rebels, they are now backing dialogue. Analysts say the desire for peace is so strong, even the right has to appear to support it.

A recent poll by the Public Opinion Institute of the Central American University says that 82 percent of those sampled supported a dialogue. Still, a few ultra-rightists are calling for the rebel negotiators to be arrested as soon as they step foot onto Salvadorean soil.

Opposition from the military and the right was a major factor in Duarte's halting the dialogue in 1984, say political analysts. The Army and hard-liners within Duarte's party oppose dialogue because it legitimizes the rebels, who official propaganda paints as terrorists.

After his daughter was kidnapped by urban guerrillas in September 1985, Duarte's position hardened. But in 1986, his popularity rapidly plummetted after he put in place US-advocated economic austerity measures. Analysts say Duarte felt compelled to revive dialogue. But a scheduled September meeting fell through.

Last May the rebels offered a more flexible proposal. Duarte ignored it. After the Central American peace accord was signed, the rebels again called for talks. A few days later Duarte proposed talks for Sept. 15, but they never occurred because the rebels refused his conditions.

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