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Colombia Appeals to Rebels

November 23, 2000

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ The Colombian government, desperate for concessions as President Andres Pastrana’s popularity hits all-time lows, urged the country’s biggest rebel group Thursday to renew peace talks.

Pastrana came to office two years ago pledging to seek an end Colombia’s long, bloody civil war, now in its 36th year. But after ceding a Switzerland-sized zone of southern Colombia to the rebels to propel the process forward, the talks have gone nowhere.

The period of rebel dominion over the zone expires Dec. 7, which leaves Pastrana with a crucial decision: He must either decide to extend the time period _ which would be granting the rebels yet another concession _ or send in his troops.

The leftist rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, pulled out of peace talks a week ago to protest U.S. military aid and a lack of government action against the rightist paramilitary forces that also roam the Colombian countryside. FARC member Olga Lucia Marin said in Caracas, Venezuela, that the freeze on peace talks would continue until Pastrana’s government takes ``measures against the paramilitaries.″

Government peace envoy Camilo Gomez went on national radio Thursday and appealed to the FARC to return to the negotiating table.

``We must hold negotiations in an explicit manner,″ Gomez said. ``We have been carrying them on for two years now, and without a doubt the way to have Colombians regain their confidence about the process is to arrive at agreements ... such as a cease-fire.″

Pastrana risks losing face _ and the remains of his dwindling popularity, including among the military _ if he grants an extension to the demilitarized zone without rebel concessions.

According to October surveys, Pastrana had a popularity rating of 22 percent, the lowest ever for a Colombian leader. A main complaint is his handling of the war, which claims an estimated 3,000 lives annually, most of them civilians killed by the leftist rebels and paramilitary groups.

The rebels, meanwhile, are using the demilitarized zone to hold hundreds of hostages and prisoners of war. They also foster coca production in the region and ``tax″ the cocaine-producing industry.

During a visit to Colombia this week, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the demilitarized zone has ``turned into an armed bastion of the FARC.″

Gomez said the rebels had no cause to halt the peace talks and insisted the government is opposed to the paramilitary forces. However, despite government assertions that it is severing informal ties between the military and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, cooperation between the two is evident.

While government troops hunt down leftist rebels, AUC gunmen prowl through towns in the war zones unmolested. Many paramilitary members are former soldiers.

``We are tired of all this complicity of the establishment with the paramilitary forces,″ FARC leader Manuel ``Sureshot″ Marulanda said in an interview with the Communist newspaper, Voz.

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