Salvadorean rebels agree to hold talks with Duarte, raising hope of settlement

By agreeing to meet this coming Monday, both Salvadorean rebels and the government signaled they will continue to pursue a hard line concerning a negotiated settlement while attempting to portray themselves as open to negotiations.

In recent weeks, each side has made rhetorical attacks and counterattacks - each aiming to pin the blame for obstruction on the other.

Now that rebel leaders have accepted President Jose Napoleon Duarte's offer to meet in the northern town of La Palma, the question is exactly what they will discuss.

In a special broadcast Tuesday by the rebel radio station, the leadership of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) said they would meet the Christian Democratic President ''at the place, date, and hour proposed.'' The rebels called for a six-mile demilitarized zone around the village of La Palma, 42 miles north of the capital and near the Honduran border.

''Taking into account the deepening of the war and the worsening of the regional situation, the FMLN and FDR (Revolutionary Democracy Front) express their intention to attend to discuss the Salvadorean crisis in its globality and present proposals for the same,'' the FMLN said in the broadcast.

President Duarte made the offer Monday in a speech to the United Nations, inviting the rebels ''to come without arms and with the presence of the world press to the village of La Palma . . . on Oct. 15.'' Oct. 15 is the fifth anniversary of a reformist military coup which ultimately thrust the then-exiled Duarte into power in 1980.

The FMLN said they would send four representatives ''who will be able to enter into commitments.'' Two of these representatives, the rebel radio said, would come from the FMLN and two from the FDR, the political wing of the insurgent forces.

The rebels said they wanted Duarte to arrive with members of the military high command and have asked Colombian President Belisario Betancur to assist in the arrangements for the meeting.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas praised the announcement. ''I am pleased by the new decision,'' he said. ''A discussion can begin even though it may not resolve anything.'' The archbishop has offered to mediate any talks that might take place in La Palma.

The United States embassy also praised the Duarte offer, calling it ''a major forward step in the process of national reconciliation based on democratic elections and a clear advance for a search for peace in Central America.''

But rightist groups in the capital, such as the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) political party and the conservative businessman's association, ANEP, issued warnings about the propoosed encounter.

''If it (the proposed meeting) is aimed at making a political opening for the terrorists to join in the electoral process, then it can only have the backing of the association,'' an ANEP communique said. But, ''What ANEP opposes strongly is a negotiation to share power.''

''Duarte,'' Maj. Robert d'Aubuisson, ARENA's political leader said, ''is continuing his propaganda show - for a start, the subversives are not going to negotiate their positions in a meeting like this, because they want power at all costs.''

The proposal by the new President caught most observers here by surprise.

Duarte has adopted a hard line with the insurgents since assuming office in June. He has repeatedly stated that he would not negotiate with the rebels unless they lay down their weapons - something guerrilla leaders say will never happen.

The rebels, for their part, have discounted any negotiated settlement that would not establish power sharing between the insurgents and current Christian Democratic government - a condition Duarte likewise says is impossible to accept.

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