THE Salvadoran government and leftist rebels ended a crucial round of peace talks Monday, falling short of an accord, but opening debate on substantive issues to end the war for the first time. Previous efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war that has lasted 10 years and killed 75,000 people were either broken off after the first rounds or never advanced beyond discussing the participants and mechanism for talks.
But in what observers believed was a new phase, the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) entered directly into substantive issues on the agenda, opening with demands for purging and restructuring the armed forces. The government, which had resisted talking about such topics as military reform, listened.
The rebels outlined demands for dissolving the National Intelligence Agency, the civilian defense patrols, and the United States trained elite Atlacatl Battalion, according to rebel sources.
Political observers had not expected concrete agreements from this round of talks, and a joint communiqu'e issued at the close confirmed that no accord had been reached.
But that statement at the end of the talks said ``the clear commitment exists to reach these agreements within the timetable agreed upon in Caracas,'' where the two sides met in May.
``The advance in that direction is unprecedented in the history of the contacts between the government and the FMLN,'' the statement said.
United Nations mediator Alvaro de Soto was optimistic at the end of the talks, insisting that the established timetable for a mid-September cease-fire could be met. The two sides agreed to meet again July 21 to 25 at an undisclosed location.
Another political observer, with close knowledge of El Salvador, cited the presence of a military officer in the negotiations as a sign that the Army recognizes it must negotiate an end to fighting.
``That they met with the presence of Col. [Mario Ernesto] Vargas, that they began the items on the agenda, that they discussed the armed forces, all these are advances that have not happened in 10 years of war,'' says the analyst, who asked for anonymity.
As the week-long meeting closed, Shafick Handal, one of the top commanders of the FMLN rebel coalition, offered a rebel cease-fire if the United States government halted aid to the Salvadoran Army.
``They are backing killers,'' Mr. Handal says of the US. ``If the United States halts its aid, we will respond with a cease-fire.''
As the talks were ending, Amnesty International USA relased a statement that ``torture, killings and `disappearances' continue to be committed'' by the military despite assurances to the contrary. It cited 17 ``death squad'' killings since the beginning of the year.
At the crux of the FMLN detailed plan for demilitarizing the nation's police force and government is elimination of defense patrols it says are paramilitary units operating as an intelligence network and a means of controlling the population.
The FMLN proposal also includes eliminating the Atlacatl Battalion, several members of which are accused of carrying out the slayings last November of six Jesuits priests. It would also eliminate the Treasury Police, the National Guard, and infantry units under the police, and place the national police force under the civilian Interior Ministry.
The rebels also proposed naming a civilian defense minister, removing key companies, such as the power company, from military control and halting forced recruitment.
On the issue the rebels call ``impunity,'' the FMLN demanded the prosecution of military officers implicated in slayings and the purge of an undisclosed number of others from the Army.
FMLN representative Salvador Samayoa says the Army was opposed to discussing the impunity question. ``This is the issue where we are most stuck,'' Samayoa says.
The government commission, which included Colonel Vargas, did not present any proposals on the Army issue. Vargas told reporters that the government would discuss placing police forces under civilian control.
Handal says the government had made a tacit concession by agreeing to discuss the issue of the armed forces. ``Until now it has been a taboo issue,'' he said in a news conference.
United Nations mediator de Soto said the two sides briefly discussed the second item on the agenda, the issue of human rights, after debate on the armed forces was exhausted. The Army high command has repeatedly voiced its opposition to most of the rebels' demands for demilitarization and purging of officers.
Political observers say that reaching a compromise on these issues would be the most difficult.
But there was a growing feeling that having gone beyond preliminary discussions into the real issues of the war was a major advance that would eventually lead to peace.
``The handwriting is on the wall,'' the UN's de Soto says. ``There is a widespread awareness that this [war] has got to end.''