Deal Pulls Colombia Back From Brink of Wider War

With handshakes, hugs and even a kiss, foreign envoys and rebels celebrated an accord that saved Colombia's peace process and averted an escalation of the 38-year civil war.

Thirty minutes before elite counterinsurgency troops backed by tanks, helicopters and warplanes were to seize a rebel safe haven Monday, President Andres Pastrana told a national television audience from Bogota that he had stopped the clock because of the breakthrough.

"Of course, the country knows that if this accord had not been produced, and we had been obliged to decree the end of the zone, we would have done so without trembling," Pastrana said.

Four hours earlier, U.N. envoy James LeMoyne and ambassadors from 10 European and Latin American nations persuaded the rebels to return to the negotiating table, which they abandoned in October after complaining about government security measures around the Switzerland-sized safe haven.

In a statement read by French Ambassador Daniel Parfait, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said it was satisfied that the military controls were not endangering the peace talks, which they pledged to resume.

Some 200 peace demonstrators, who had gathered near the thatched-roof hut in Los Pozos where Monday's talks were held, cheered when the breakthrough was announced.

LeMoyne exchanged handshakes and hugs with rebel leaders, then walked over to peace protesters, jubilantly lifted a small girl and kissed her on the cheek.

When word reached the town of Mesetas, on the other side of the safe haven, church bells rang out and a man on a motorcycle drove around honking his horn.

But a mountain of work must be done -- and suspicion between the warring sides overcome -- before rebel and government representatives begin discussing terms of a cease-fire to end the civil war, which kills about 3,500 people every year.

Pastrana's peace envoy, Camilo Gomez, called the Monday accord "an important step." However, underscoring the lack of progress in three years of talks, he said "the work must now continue with much more force and vigor."

Hoping to put momentum into Monday's breakthrough, Pastrana said he had instructed Gomez "to begin this same night meetings directed at signing of accords that exclude the civilian population from the effects of violence."

The government press agency later said talks would resume Wednesday.

Pastrana granted the safe haven to the FARC three years ago as gesture to facilitate peace talks. But sporadic talks there yielded little.

On Sunday, the FARC announced the peace process had collapsed after Pastrana gave the group until Monday night to present a viable proposal for restarting the peace process or vacate the safe haven. The rebels announced they were preparing to abandon the main towns in the area.

Pastrana was frustrated both with the lack of progress in the talks and growing evidence that the FARC was using the territory to conduct military training, hide kidnap victims and engage in illegal drug operations.

The safe haven still is scheduled to expire Sunday, a date Pastrana had set months ago before his ultimatum.

Pastrana reminded the rebels of that deadline and said he wanted to see progress in the peace talks before deciding whether to renew it.

Diplomats from France, Canada, Sweden, Cuba, Norway, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland and Venezuela arrived here Monday morning and headed immediately into discussions with rebel delegates and LeMoyne -- who remained in contact with Pastrana in Bogota and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The talks were held at a plastic table in the open-air hut. Rifle-toting rebels kept peace demonstrators and a throng of journalists 30 yards back. The United States, a major provider of military aid to Colombia, did not send an envoy. Washington has said it considers the FARC a terrorist organization and is not participating in the peace process.

However, as talks proceeded in Los Pozos on Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington would support Pastrana's decisions.

Still, some Colombians remained skeptical about the prospects for peace.

Valdemar Moreno, a rancher who had been among the peace demonstrators, beamed after the accord was reached.

"It's great," he exclaimed, before being interrupted by his sister Amparo Bohorquez.

"Only when we see concrete results," she said.

Presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe, a center-right former mayor of Medellin, said the peace process was a sham.

"Last night they killed," he said, referring to a FARC attack in San Jose de Alban, outside the safe haven.

"The reward we give the FARC today is letting them keep the zone, without international oversight ... so they can continue with their aim of destroying the country."