Talks in El Salvador

SINCE the August signing of the Central American peace plan, the world's attention has largely focused on whether Nicaragua will comply. But a cease-fire between the government and armed rebels in nearby El Salvador is also critical to the success of the plan. Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte stands to gain from any laying down of arms by Salvadorean insurgents and the ending of outside aid to them. Though more self-reliant than Nicaragua's contras, El Salvador's sharply divided leftist rebels hold no enthusiasm for the Guatemala accord.

Both sides remain far apart. Yet they managed this week to sit down for two full days of discussion, their first publicly announced meeting in three years. And they agreed to form two joint commissions to work out a cease-fire and other specifics. The rebels thus gain a continuing dialogue of sorts and the added stamp of a certain legitimacy. The pro forma structure, which could lead to compliance, also benefits Mr. Duarte.

Unfortunately, the hard work lies ahead. The rebels spurn a cease-fire as tantamount to surrender; they want an immediate political role in a coalition government for calling new elections and are eager to debate the government on such issues as human rights, the economy, and United States involvement. Duarte says he cannot under the Constitution make such political concessions and will ask the Army to declare a unilateral cease-fire if the commissions fail to do the job. He is under strong pressure from the US-backed Salvadorean Army and the political right to cede little if anything to the rebels.

Neither side wants to be blamed for sabotaging the peace plan; it has forced them to at least keep up an appearance of negotiations. Fatigue on both sides after a full seven years of civil war could push them to compromise. The decision of rebel political leader Rub'en Zamora to return from Nicaragua, where he fled to escape El Salvador's death squads, speaks well for a somewhat improved human rights atmosphere under Duarte; it could also widen the split among rival rebel factions.

El Salvador, with its tradition of settling differences by fighting, still has a considerable distance to go to achieve a genuine peace. It is encouraging that, at least for the moment, it is trying to get there by talking rather than shooting.

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