Salvador Signs Rights Pact, But Rebel Offensive Likely

A FIRST-EVER human-rights accord between Salvadoran rebels and government representatives has breathed enough vitality into the peace process to keep it from collapse, but has not staved off the likelihood of another rebel offensive, analysts here say. As part of a pact signed Thursday in Costa Rica, negotiators agreed to establish a United Nations mission to monitor human rights, giving an international agency unprecedented investigative power in El Salvador. But the agreement allows UN monitors to begin their work only if a cease-fire, proposed for mid-September, takes effect.

The monthly peace talks have been deadlocked over military reform. Mario Aguinada Carranza, head of the left-of-center National Democratic Union, says the lack of movement in military reform greatly increases prospects for another rebel offensive in the decade-long struggle.

``In the short term, the risk is that military activity will pick up in a strong way, because the rebels have concluded that the government only negotiates after military strikes,'' Mr. Carranza said. Guerrillas credit their November push with creating a political opening for the current talks under UN mediation. But they insist that the Army is engaged in a military offensive.

In these most serious talks since the war began, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) appears likely to maintain its insistence on military reforms before laying down its arms. Rebel demands for restructuring and reducing the military include a call for a civilian defense minister and disbanding the civil-defense patrols and the Atlacatl Battalion - the elite force accused of killing six Jesuit priests and two women last November. The proposals, like the guerrillas' recent call for the purging of some 200 Salvadoran Army officers they say are responsible for egregious human rights abuses, have been soundly rejected by both military and government officials.

Defense Minister Humberto Larios says the military is already in a self-directed, ``continual process of purification.'' Meanwhile, Thomas Pickering, the US envoy to the UN, on a swing through El Salvador this week, accused the rebels of sending mixed signals about their interest in negotiations.

``The FMLN's idea that it can participate in peace negotiations and at the same time threaten another military offensive are absolutely incompatible,'' Mr. Pickering said.

Guerrilla leaders accuse the US Administration of sending its own ``mixed signals'' to the armed forces by publicly supporting the peace talks and simultaneously combating congressional efforts to halve El Salvador's $85 million annual US military aid budget and link assistance to progress in the negotiations.

Meanwhile, Army Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce placed his troops on special alert this week in anticipation of a guerrilla blitz.

Rebel sources admit the FMLN could pay a high political price for another military drive. A repeat of November's offensive would invite condemnation from the United Nations and from congressional opponents of US military aid to El Salvador.

Political leaders such as Ruben Zamora, head of the Popular Social Christian Movement, are convinced that military rigidity remains the prime short-term stumbling block to peace. ``The military knows that with negotiations they are going to lose power and privileges,'' Mr. Zamora said.

Negotiations scheduled for Aug. 17 will test whether, for the first time in a decade, a political solution is possible.

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