Last-ditch diplomatic effort saves Colombian peace talks

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Colombia's government and main leftist rebel group agreed Monday to resume peace talks, diplomats and a U.N. envoy said, overcoming an impasse that threatened to plunge the country into a new round of fighting.

France's Ambassador to Colombia, Daniel Parfait, read a statement saying that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had dropped its objections to returning to peace talks that have been paralyzed since October.

He said President Andres Pastrana had signed off on the agreement, reached with the help of a U.N. envoy, Catholic Church delegates, and ambassadors from ten countries.

The government had earlier set a deadline of 8:30 p.m. deadline for rebels to agree to a resume the peace process or troops would move to retake their safe haven in southern Colombia.

Colombians had been bracing for wider fighting, as troops in recent days amassed around the zone, which Pastrana ceded to the FARC in 1998 just before the outset of peace talks.

The accord held out new hope for cease-fire talks envisioned prior to the breakdown in the peace process late last year.

There was no immediate reaction from Pastrana to the accord, which was reached with the help of the foreign diplomats and days of mediation by U.N. envoy James LeMoyne.

The agreement came after Parfait and nine other foreign envoys met with rebels in their safe haven in an 11th-hour attempt to salvage the collapsing peace process.

Rebel negotiator Raul Reyes, seated by Parfait's side during the announcement, confirmed that the FARC was satisfied that military controls placed around the Switzerland-sized zone were not endangering the peace talks.

LeMoyne said the agreement had the full backing of the United Nations. He exchanged handshakes and hugs with rebel leaders after the accord was announced.

LeMoyne also went over jubilantly to a group that had gathered at the negotiating compound in this southern village to urge on the negotiators. He raised a small girl in his arms and gave her a kiss.

"This great," said one of the peace protesters, Valdemar Moreno, a rancher from the nearby town of San Vicente del Caguan.

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