Deal Gives Colombian President Leeway to Continue Peace Process

An eleventh-hour accord between Colombia's government and leftist rebels has almost certainly prolonged the life of peace negotiations and a controversial guerrilla safe haven.

But while many Colombians applauded the agreement reached late Friday between President Andres Pastrana's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, others withheld judgment.

Some questioned whether the guerrilla movement, known as FARC, would abide by its new promises, among which are stopping roadside kidnappings, respecting civilian authorities and allowing free political campaigning inside the sanctuary in the southern plains.

"The fact that the FARC have said they won't kidnap is not enough," Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, a former foreign minister and U.N. peace official, told RCN radio Saturday. "What is important now ... is that they do what they say."

Others were more hopeful.

"For the first time, we see concrete commitments," Daniel Garcia-Pena, a former government peace envoy, told The Associated Press. "It comes at a critical moment and can restore some of the faith and trust that has been lost."

The agreement, signed by government peace envoy Camilo Gomez and guerrilla chief Manuel Marulanda inside the rebels' safe haven, pushes to the top of the agenda a cease-fire proposed by a civilian peace commission. The two sides promised to "engage immediately" in talks on the proposed six-month truce.

Growing impatience with the peace process and recent violence -- including the slaying of a beloved former culture minister in late September — had intensified pressure on Pastrana to end the safe haven. The president ceded the Switzerland-sized area to the rebels in 1998 as a goodwill gesture to get peace negotiations going.

The zone was scheduled to expire Tuesday. Friday's agreement appeared to give Pastrana justification to extend the zone, which he has done on several occasions.

Colombia's military and U.S. officials accuse the FARC of abusing Pastrana's good faith and using the zone to stash kidnap victims, stage military attacks and conduct drug operations. The FARC has threatened to walk away from negotiations if the government terminates the zone.

Although the FARC announced it would instruct its 16,000 fighters to halt random roadside kidnappings — abductions at roadblocks that have left many people feeling trapped inside the cities — it was unclear how much relief it would provide.

The FARC did not renounce selective kidnappings, and its pledge would do nothing to prevent the nation's smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, from kidnapping. The two rebel armies were responsible for most of the 3,700 people abducted in Colombia last year.

Peace has been the Pastrana administration's top priority. The 37-year war, pitting guerrillas against the government and right-wing militias, kills about 3,500 people a year.

At least seven FARC fighters and three soldiers were killed in fighting Saturday, army Capt. Luis Hernandez said.

"I think the FARC has moved in the sense that it recognizes the need to reduce the intensity of the conflict," said Luis Carlos Villegas, head of the National Association of Industrialists.