In El Salvador, Both Sides Say That New Year Pact Will End Long Civil War

Rebel leader cites importance of direct contact with US ambassador

THE signing of a conditional agreement at the United Nations in New York to end El Salvador's 12-year civil war is irreversible and likely to be respected, longtime activists on both sides of this embittered conflict say.

Although there is still fear that violence by ultra-rightist groups opposed to the accords may escalate in the coming months, activists and diplomats alike say they are confident the war will soon end. They add that supporters of both the government and guerrillas have already begun work on their postwar political strategies.

Less than an hour before the stroke of midnight here on New Year's Eve, Salvadoran President Alfredo Felix Cristiani and the top five commanders of the guerrilla Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) reached a tentative bilateral agreement to end the fighting. According to its terms, a nationwide cease-fire will go into effect Feb. 1, to be followed by a transitional period until Oct. 31, when the demobilization of the rebels is to end.

Specific details on the accord must still be worked out. But the most difficult matters - including the formation of a new civilian police force and major reforms of the military - have already been agreed upon, guerrilla leaders and United States officials here both say. The cease-fire agreement is expected to be formally signed in New York on Jan. 16. Rebels see victory

FMLN combatants and supporters, many of whom have had relatives killed by the military, see the accords and especially the proposed military and police reforms as a victory after decades of struggle. Most of the 75,000 Salvadorans killed in the 12-year civil war did not die in combat, but were assassinated on suspicion of supporting the rebels.

Two days after the accords were signed, leftist groups organized a block party in downtown San Salvador in front on the Metropolitan Cathedral. One banner read, "The FMLN has arrived." Thousands of FMLN supporters as well as hundreds of combatants in civilian dress recently returned from the mountains, mingled, and greeted old friends in the central square. As a Ranchera band changed the words to a slow, Mexican ballad, the elated crowd swayed and sang along in unison to the tune of "Goodbye, Armed Force s."

The conditional agreement was the result of 20 months of protracted negotiations under UN auspices to end one of the most entrenched civil conflicts in memory. It came as a result of changing attitudes of all major players in the war including the US, independent political analysts and American officials here say.

"There was a shift in emphasis," says a US diplomat. Following the November 1989 offensive by the FMLN, American priorities went "from supporting the counterinsurgency to supporting a negotiated settlement," says the diplomat, who was in the country during the rebel drive.

The strongest sustained FMLN attack of the war, the November 1989 offensive, took both US and Salvadoran officials here by surprise. It demonstrated that the US-backed Salvadoran military was unlikely to defeat the guerrillas, the diplomat says.

FMLN leaders had long maintained that the US was actively blocking a negotiated solution. But with the beginning of direct negotiations at the UN in September 1991 between President Cristiani and the top five FMLN comandantes, guerrilla leaders both in New York and here say the US has played a key, positive role in making a negotiated settlement possible.

Western officials admit they actively lobbied the Cristiani government. "He knew ... we wanted this agreement by the end of the year, and we wanted it badly," one says.

Western officials also say that both the government and the FMLN demonstrated moderation in negotiations. "The FMLN deserves a lot of credit to have come to the table to try and find a reasonable settlement for the country," according to a US diplomat.

Previously, US officials had characterized the FMLN guerrillas as "terrorist extremists." During the 1989 offensive, for example, US Ambassador William Walker denied the insurgency had any legitimacy, saying the conflict was the result of "foreign inspired Marxist aggression" rather than a civil war. US ambassador's role

But in 1991, Mr. Walker made two separate trips to meet directly with FMLN leaders in Santa Marta, in the northern El Salvador province of Cabanas, a longtime rebel stronghold. Both guerrilla leaders and Western officials say the ambassador's initiative helped build confidence between the two sides.

"We consider our direct relations with the United States, including the very same Ambassador William Walker, to have been important toward achieving these definitive, global accords," said FMLN leader Walter Funes. Interviewed during a guerrilla New Year's party on the northern slopes of Guazapa volcano 20 miles north of the capital, just minutes after news of the agreements was announced, Mr. Funes said he and his fighters had confidence in their representatives in New York, and added that the accords s eemed satisfactory to rebels in the field.

US officials say they are also happy with the terms of the agreement. "Cristiani came out in remarkably good shape for what was essential to them," says one US diplomat. "He beat back the FMLN on every vestige of power sharing."

The text of the accords is still confidential. But in the final hours of negotiations the FMLN was pressured to drop its demand to have former guerrillas assume command positions in the new civilian force, as well as its demand to share decisions over social and economic policy with Cristiani's government, Western diplomatic sources say. However, there will still be former rebels in the new police force. The military will also be reduced and significantly reformed, diplomatic sources say.

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