BOGOTA, Colombia – In an attempt to salvage Colombia's peace process, the government and the largest rebel group announced plans Friday to hold immediate cease-fire talks. The insurgents also pledged to scale back kidnappings.
Both sides agreed to an agenda for the talks that pushes vague issues like poverty and unemployment to the back burner as negotiators try to halt the violence.
Peace talks have been held sporadically for more than two years but have yielded little, and President Andres Pastrana is facing increasing pressure to cancel a safe haven he granted the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, in late 1998 in an attempt to jump-start negotiations. The zone expires Tuesday.
Friday's agreement, announced by rebel envoys and government negotiators meeting in a village inside the safe haven, suggests the Switzerland-sized guerrilla sanctuary will be renewed.
The talks agenda, proposed last week by a three-member advisory commission, includes discussion of a cease-fire, increased government efforts against illegal rightist paramilitaries, and the end of kidnappings, one of the ways the FARC raises money to finance its fight.
The FARC agreed to instruct its units across the country to stop the so-called "miracle fishing," in which rebels use random road blocks on highways to catch and kidnap whatever wealthy or politically useful people might be passing through an area. The FARC also promised not to hold hostages in the safe haven and to allow political campaigns within the zone.
The talks reached a crisis point this week after a former culture minister, Consuelo Araujo, was kidnapped by the FARC. She was killed as the government launched a rescue. Also, the leading presidential candidate was denied entry into the rebel zone.
"We believe this is an agreement that will change the course of the (peace) process," said government peace commissioner Camilo Gomez. Raul Reyes, a guerrilla commander, sat next to him.
The agreement is similar to one reached in February, on the eve of the last deadline for the zone's renewal. The two sides pledged to intensify talks towards a cease-fire, but little real progress resulted.
The FARC has warned that the peace process will end if Pastrana refuses to renew the rebel sanctuary.
The FARC is on Washington's list of international terrorist organizations. Colombia's 37-year civil war pits Marxist rebels against government forces and right-wing paramilitaries. Approximately 3,500 Colombians die every year in the fighting.