Salvadorans Agree to Reforms

Pact falls short of rebel demands, but is seen as keeping up momentum of peace negotiations

THE longest, most intense round of El Salvadoran peace talks concluded Saturday, falling short of expectations and leaving two crucial issues - armed forces reforms and cease-fire terms - unresolved. But negotiators for the Salvadoran government and Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) described an accord reached on constitutional reforms as bringing the 11-year-old civil war closer to an end.

"We celebrate the agreements reached here," said Schafik Handal, the chief FMLN negotiator. "They're not definitive. They're not complete. But they are an advance of great importance."

After three weeks in a Mexico City hotel and, what United Nations mediator Alvaro de Soto called, "many kilos of paper, rivers of ink" the two sides agreed to 24 constitutional reforms. The changes are to strengthen the judicial and electoral systems while reducing military influence.

Proposed reforms include:

* Creation of a national police force and independent intelligence agency under civil (not military) authorities.

* Creation of a national human rights prosecutor and a revised system for selecting Supreme Court judges that will require approval of two-thirds of the legislature.

* Creation of a "Truth Commission" to "investigate grave acts of violence occuring since 1980." In a nation troubled by assassinations, death squads, "disappearances" and the virtual impunity of military forces, the Truth Commission aims to create "confidence ... in the peace process."

This nonjudicial commission - directed by three people chosen by the United Nations - is supposed to be allowed to freely interview citizens, visit any location without prior notification, and solicit information in pursuit of "truth." Its only power, however, is to make recommendations.

Also, the commission's ability to investigate ongoing cases, for example, the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, is unclear.

In another change to restrict the military, the Salvadoran Constitution's Article 30 is to be eliminated. It permits the military to perform police duties during public disorder, for example.

Still, the FMLN leaves the talks with less than it hoped. It wanted the armed forces redefined in the Constitution as something less than a "permanent institution." It did not get key constitutional changes regarding land ownership. It also failed in its bid to devise a mechanism that would allow constitutional reforms to occur without approval of two consecutive legislatures, which is presently required by law.

On Friday, when it appeared the talks might end, the FMLN issued a statement outlining government "intransigence."

The statement described a constitutional reform package delivered to negotiators last week by Salvadoran legislators as a last-minute face-saving measure by the government.

United Nations mediator De Soto said, however, that he did not see "big differences" between the legislators' proposal and the final agreement. This could bode well for the legislative approval of the accords necessary by tomorrow. For the accord to become law, this term's legislature must approve it by majority vote. And the next assembly, which takes office May 1, must pass it by a two-thirds majority.

President Alfredo Cristiani must sell the pact to his party and to the legislature, Mr. De Soto said. FMLN commander Joaquin Villalobos called the agreement "a bridge" to future talks.

Hoping to keep momentum going, De Soto plans the next round of talks during the second half of May.

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