President's Initiative Could Help Restart Guatemalan Talks

WHILE a fair bit of public posturing is going on, the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels appear to be headed back to the negotiating table.

Last week, President Jorge Serrano Elias offered a fresh olive branch in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Giving in to a key Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) demand, President Serrano asked the UN to verify a human rights accord that has been the source of a year-old stalemate between the two sides.

Serrano, who has long maintained that the war should be settled by Guatemalans alone, said his government was ready to sign this part of the peace agreement "immediately." He challenged the URNG to negotiate an end to Central America's longest running war, or at least a cease-fire, in 90 days of nonstop talks.

"It's a definite policy change which could put the talks back on track," says Carlos Ochoa Garcia of the Institute of International Relations and Peace Research, based in Guatemala City. But, he warns, "there are many tough issues left to be negotiated."

The URNG gave its conditional endorsement to Serrano's offer, calling it a "positive gesture." It accepted the 90-day challenge in a statement issued Jan. 21. But it also described the government's plan as "partial, contradictory, and incomplete."

The URNG agreed to a cease-fire and the restriction of its forces to designated areas, as Serrano proposed. But rebel leaders conditioned their acceptance on several new requirements, including:

* The restriction of government troops to negotiated areas.

* The immediate dissolution of Civil Defense Patrols. The patrols are made up of armed civilians and directed by the Guatemalan Army. The patrols are "voluntary" but those who do not participate are often branded as rebel sympathizers - and this can be fatal.

* A 50 percent reduction in the Guatemalan armed forces.

* The establishment of an "ad hoc commission" composed of four Central American ex-presidents and a UN representative who will oversee the purge of Guatemalan Army officers involved in human rights violations.

"We are in agreement that there should be a quick resolution. If Serrano accepts these terms, we shall have peace in 90 days," says Miguel Angel Sandoval, a spokesman for the URNG in Mexico City.

Several of the URNG demands are modeled after the El Salvador peace accord. But the URNG does not have political or military might comparable to the leftist rebels in El Salvador.

On Friday, Serrano publicly rejected the URNG conditions.

"It is incredible that they should now bring up conditions they never brought up before," Serrano said in a speech. A Guatemalan Army spokesman called the demands "ridiculous."

Still, such statements are not unusual before a new round of talks, as each side maneuvers for advantage and wants its constituents to see it as negotiating from a position of strength.

Analysts note that at least the debate has been rejoined, and it appears the human rights logjam has been broken. But doubts have been expressed as to whether the other points of contention can be resolved in just 90 days.

More than 100,000 people have died in the three-decade-old war and roughly 200,000 have fled Guatemala. Last week, about 2,400 of the 45,000 refugees in Mexico returned, heading for land abandoned during the Army's campaign to clear the jungle highlands of rebels in the early 1980s. The returning refugees held a homecoming rally in the capital on Sunday.

Some observers call the timing of the Serrano plan suspicious.

"It was a propaganda show to deflect attention from the refugees," Mr. Ochoa says. "Flying to New York, without peace talks mediator Catholic Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, without discussing the plan first with the mediator, indicates he wanted to surprise people and distract world attention from the refugees."

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