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 were 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 10 countries.
The government had earlier set a deadline of 9:30 p.m. (EST) 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 massed 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 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 zone, about twice the size of New Jersey, 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.
However, Moreno's sister, Amparo Bohorquez cast a note of caution. "The negotiators now have to sign agreements that will protect the human rights of the civilian population and a cease-fire," she said.
The agreement capped a nerve-racking day in which Colombians awoke to find that the peace process, believed to have collapsed entirely the day before, now had a chance of being rescued.
On Monday morning, the diplomats from France, Canada, Sweden, Cuba, Norway, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland and Venezuela announced they were flying into rebel territory to try and broker a last-ditch accord.
Upon arrival here, they headed immediately into discussions with the envoys and LeMoyne, who remained in close touch with Pastrana in Bogota.
On Sunday, the FARC announced the peace process had collapsed after Pastrana imposed the Monday night deadline for the group to come up with a viable proposal to restart the peace process or to vacate the safe haven.
In agreeing to come back to the negotiations, the guerrillas appeared to meeting all of the president's demands for restarting the process, and allowing the FARC to hold on to the massive rebel enclave in Colombia's southern plains.
Although talks have produced little after three years, many feared Colombia's 38-year-old conflict will explode into all-out war if the negotiations were abandoned.
Residents of the guerrilla safe haven were afraid that right-wing paramilitary fighters will move into the zone should the peace talks fail, and begin killing civilians they suspect of having collaborated with the FARC.
The conflict in the South American country pits the U.S.-backed military and a brutal paramilitary group against the FARC and smaller guerrilla factions.
As the peace conversations proceeded in Los Pozos on Monday, Colombia's U.S.-backed military readied itself to move into the zone in overland and by helicopter.
Meanwhile, hundred of peace demonstrators crowded the grounds of the negotiating compound, shouting "Long Live Peace, Long Live Colombia."