In Colombia's troubled talks, stopwatch restarts

Sunday is the next deadline in peace negotiations, which resume today.

Everyone, it seemed, was resigned that peace would elude Colombia yet again - everyone, that is, but the international community. As negotiators packed their bags, the Army prepared to retake a vast rebel safe area and the nation braced for all-out war.

Even as rebel units were abandoning camps and checkpoints - and all but two of their negotiators had gone - a United Nations envoy and ambassadors from 10 nations were chasing an agreement into the last possible hours on Monday, and to everyone's surprise, they found it.

The international community has long been concerned about the wider impacts of Colombia's grinding, 37-year civil war, which claims 3,500 lives every year. Ninety percent of the world's cocaine is produced here. The drug trade finances the war, and thrives in the chaos and anarchy that the war creates.

UN envoy James LeMoyne stepped into the fray on Friday after the warring parties had all but given up. Meanwhile, representatives from the 10 so-called facilitator countries held a five-hour meeting with President Andres Pastrana in Bogotá over the weekend and joined Mr. LeMoyne and the rebel negotiators in Los Pozos on Monday. The 10 nations include Cuba, Sweden, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Canada, Switzerland, Mexico, and Venezuela.

The United States includes the FARC on its list of foreign terrorist organizations, and it has donated over $1 billion in military aid to help the Colombian Army confront the narcotics industry, which in part finances the FARC.

Under the agreement, the FARC agreed to immediately start discussing an end to their trademark hostilities, including kidnapping, on which they depend to finance their campaigns. It also gives the parties until Jan. 20 to discuss a cease-fire agreement and discuss future control over the Switzerland-size rebel haven.

"We thank Mr. LeMoyne, who has contributed so much to this work for peace," said FARC negotiator Paul Reyes, after the agreement was announced Monday.

LeMoyne stressed that the UN had no peace proposal of its own, but his intervention may itself strengthen calls for a neutral third party who can help keep talks on course when the two sides are bogged down in procedural disputes.

But if by Sunday there are no tangible proofs of the FARC's good faith, said Mr. Pastrana, the rebels once more will face a military offensive. "The peace process is only justified if it produces concrete results - tangible deeds of peace. I know that [the announcement that talks have resumed] will not make the Colombian people recover their faith in the FARC's word and willingness for peace. It's up to them to win back the confidence of the Colombian people," he said in a televised national address.

After 37 years of war, five days may not seem much time to hammer out a cease-fire, but analysts agree that the rebels must come up with some kind of offer.

"The process can't go on as it was, with endless talks about nothing. It needs to produce concrete agreements," says Daniel Garcia-Peña of the peace group Planeta Paz. "The process either moves ahead or it dies."

Although negotiations had wobbled many times, the recent crisis was the closest that the government had come to breaking off the talks, and many feared that a complete collapse of the process would usher in an even bloodier phase in Colombia's conflict.

The roots of the deadlock were planted last October, when the FARC left the negotiating table in protest at stepped-up military controls around the zone. Apparently stung by the rebel intransigence, Pastrana gave the FARC 48 hours to leave a vast haven that was handed over in 1998 as a pre-condition for talks.

FARC commanders said that the ultimatum undid three years of work, and announced that they were ready to withdraw their troops, ending the peace process. The guerrillas abandoned their camps within the zone, while thousands of government soldiers, backed by tanks, helicopters, and troop carriers advanced toward the region.

"The country knows that if this accord had not been produced, and we had been obliged to decree the end of the zone, we would have done so without trembling," said Pastrana.

At the last moment, the president's refusal to cave in forced FARC to back down. "For the first time, the FARC lost its nerve. They had to swallow their pride," said peace activist Garcia-Peña.

Talks resume today on one of the thorniest issues: a cessation of hostilities, including kidnapping, extortion, and attacks on infrastructure.

Nonetheless, the revival of talks brought a palpable wave of relief for inhabitants of the demilitarized zone, who feared that they would be caught in the crossfire if government forces and right-wing paramilitaries had returned to the zone.

In San Vicente del Caguán, the largest town in the enclave, Mayor Nestor Leon Ramirez welcomed the news, but added that the time has come to include the civilian population in negotiations.

"We've cleaned our house for the party, but we haven't been asked to dance," he said.

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