Negotiators in Europe continue talk about Latin American peace treaty

Jul 24, 2000 02:00 AM

After 36 years of rebellion, moves toward peace in Colombia have been slow. But negotiators are back in Europe for a new try at ending Latin America's longest-running war. Leaders of Colombia's second-largest rebel movement, the National Liberation Army, joined government officials and dozens of Colombian civic and religious leaders for two days of talks.
Franz von Daeniken, a senior official of the Swiss foreign ministry, told the groups that the meeting was an "historic moment for all those who believe in the possibility of a just peace in Colombia." The immediate goal is to work out details of a plan to create a troop-free enclave for the rebels, known by their Spanish initials ELN. The guerrillas want to host a national peace convention in the proposed zone, a region rich in oil, gold and cocaine in northern Colombia.
The idea follows Colombian President Andres Pastrana's November 1998 removal of all government troops from a large southern ranching region now administered by Colombia's larger insurgent group - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Peace talks with the FARC since then have moved very slowly. The FARC allegedly is using its area to rustle cattle, forcibly recruit teen-age fighters and become more deeply involved in the lucrative cocaine trade.

In February 1999 Pastrana rejected the ELN's request for its own demilitarised zone. But in April of this year, Pastrana gave the plan his tentative approval even though he faces stiff opposition from conservatives, including rightist paramilitary groups and northern residents who fear having to live under rebel rule.
The idea would be to turn greater San Pablo and two neighbouring counties along the Magdalena River, Colombia's main waterway, into a guerrilla safe haven. Pastrana has pledged tighter controls than in the south, including international observers and naval patrols on the river.
When the ELN joined in four days of secret peace meetings in Germany two years ago, the negotiations with civic leaders in a Roman Catholic cloister in Bavaria fell short of arranging direct talks with the government. The ELN said it would keep seeking talks with the government while continuing negotiations with civic leaders, but the process was interrupted by rebel bombings and mass kidnappings.

The 5,000-member ELN was formed in the 1960s by disgruntled peasants, leftist priests and radical students. It trained in Cuba. Nearly wiped out in the 1970s, it rebounded with the help of millions of dollars from kidnappings and blackmail of foreign oil companies.
The government let two ELN leaders - Francisco Galan and Felipe Torres - out of jail to participate in the peace talks. They must return to jail in Medellin immediately afterward. The two, who were convicted of sedition, terrorism and kidnapping, were also briefly released for the talks in 1998.
Also in Geneva are relatives of 11 people kidnapped by the rebels in the spring of 1999. "We told them that Geneva is the city of human rights and that they should free our relatives as a humanitarian gesture," Camilo Rodriguez, whose father and brother were taken captive, said after a meeting with rebels.

Source: AP
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