Guatemalan Army tries to end rebel war. While government talks peace, military carries out `final offensive'

While Guatemala's President discussed the Central American peace plan in Costa Rica over the weekend, the Guatemalan Army pushed ahead with a major offensive against leftist guerrillas. The Army has launched what it calls its ``final offensive'' in Quich'e Province. Defense Minister Gen. H'ector Gramajo has said the offensive will ``in a short period of time bring a military victory.'' And, he says, ``the subversion will be eradicated from our country.''

One of the peace plan's key provisions is the establishment of a cease-fire. But the government says there is no civil war here. According to Roberto Valle, a Christian Democrat legislator, the rebels are not strong enough to be considered a real threat. This means there really isn't a civil war, and thus a cease-fire isn't necessary, he says.

In comparison with the Army's counterinsurgency strategies of the last three years, this offensive, in its fourth month, is considered unusually large and aggressive. Though conclusive figures are unavailable, people who live in the area report a growing number of casualties on both sides and among civilians.

According to General Gramajo, troops from four military bases have been transported to a remote area of Quich'e Province, which the guerrillas have controlled for the past six years.

Guatemala's insurgency, the oldest in the region, began in the early 1960s. A counterinsurgency campaign launched by the military governments of the late 1970s and early '80s substantially weakened the rebels. But in the process, more than 440 villages were destroyed, 750,000 civilians displaced from their homes, and thousands ``disappeared,'' according to human rights reports.

In an effort to comply with the peace plan, representatives of the Guatemalan government and guerrillas met in Madrid last October for the first official talks between the two sides in 27 years. But the talks broke down after three days. Since then, the fighting has intensified as the rebels struggle to gain a negotiating position, and the Army fights to prove that dialogue is unnecessary.

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity - the umbrella organization of the three rebel armies - has said that until political, social, and economic changes are made, the rebels will not lay down their arms, and the war will continue.

The Madrid talks sparked strong opposition from some Army officers, and the military has let it be known that further talks would not be tolerated.

The dialogue issue has become a battle of wills between the government and rebels, with each side taking out full-page newspaper ads to present their positions.

In an apparent attempt to show that Guatemala was meeting the peace plan's requirements, President Marco Vinicio Cerezo said in a recent ad that his government would be willing to conduct ``indirect conversations'' with the rebels to discuss their incorporation into an unarmed, political front. This was in response to the rebel's December proposal for renewed talks.

A government source, who asked not to be named, said he thought Mr. Cerezo should take the initiative and meet directly with the rebels ``to show he is leading his country.''

Despite talk of dialogue, the country has moved further away from peace with a recent increase of fighting in nine of the nation's 23 provinces. The region of the most intense fighting has been around Nebaj.

The guerrillas reported 110 soldiers were killed in November alone. They did not provide guerrilla casualties. Other indicators, however, show there have been a high number of casualties. The military hospital in Guatemala City is reportedly full. And Fernando Ruiz, a funeral home employee, said, ``We've seen a lot of soldiers come through here, some of them captains and lieutenants.''

The Army has only regained control of one town since the offensive started. But it has made more progress in its campaign to undermine what it calls the rebels' rural base of support. The military has rounded up some 1,600 Indian peasants who lived in the rebel-controlled zone.

Peasants say in recent months the military has frequently bombed the civilian population in the mountains.

Most of these refugees are being held in two Army-run villages. An Army commander said that they would be able to return to their home towns after the offensive ended and when the villages were repopulated under Army supervision.

Sources in the area, who do not want to be identified for fear of Army reprisals, said refugees were being interrogated by the Army. They will then be put through a three-month reindoctrination program because, as an Army commander in Quich'e said, the guerrillas brainwash civilians.

At least 34 refugees are known to have been taken to the Nebaj military base. They have not been seen since.

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