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Government Refuses To Negotiate With Leftist Guerrillas

July 28, 1988

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ President Virgilio Barco said Thursday his government will not negotiate with leftist guerrillas at church-sponsored peace talks Friday and will arrest any insurgents who show up at the meeting.

His decision dashed hopes for a negotiated settlement soon to a guerrilla war that has killed 75,000 people in the last 25 years. Barco acted after military leaders criticized the proposed talks.

A guerrilla spokesman said the government decision could be a mistake. There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 guerrillas in Colombia.

In a communique Barco said his government would study any recommendations coming out of the peace conference in Bogota. But the communique also said that guerrillas will be arrested if they show up at the conference to talk with the church leaders, former presidents and 20 congressmen who are to attend.

A leftist guerrilla group, the April 19 Movement, had demanded peace talks as a condition for the release earlier this month of a former presidential candidate it had kidnapped.

The government refused to meet the demand for the release of Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, who was abducted May 29 in a hail of machine-gun fire in Bogota.

The guerrilla group, known as M-19, released Gomez anyway, and the government said it would think about negotating with the insurgents.

Church leaders and members of the country’s two leading political groups, the Conservative and Liberal parties, met in Panama with M-19 guerrillas to win Gomez’s release.

Those who met with the guerrillas said that regardless of the government’s decision they would organize a peace conference in Bogota after Gomez was freed. Gomez, the son of former President Laureano Gomez, has said he will attend the peace conference.

The leader of the M-19, Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, will send a tape-recorded message to the gathering, a Pizarro spokesman, Carlos Ramiro Lucio Escobar, said at a news conference Thursday.

Lucio Escobar said Barco’s refusal to send a delegate to the peace conference ″could be a big mistake.″

It was the M-19 that took over the Palace of Justice Nov. 7, 1985 in an attack that left 115 dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

Bishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos has been the driving force behind organizing the peace conference.

After meeting Thursday with Barco at the presidential palace, he revealed the government’s refusal to attend the peace conference and said he could understand the difficult position Barco is in.

Castrillon did not elaborate, but he undoubtedly was referring to the military’s opposition to peace talks. ″The nation wants to stop the war,″ the bishop said. ″It has to be stopped.″

The country’s two most powerful generals, the minister of defense, Rafael Samudio, and the head of the chiefs of staff, Jaime Guerrero, have said they oppose any peace talks with the rebels.

But the two generals, in an apparent attempt to calm fears of the possibility of a military coup, also said they would abide by any government decision to negotiate with the insurgents.

Barco’s communique said his government might offer pardons to guerrillas for political crimes. But even that position left little hope of any reconciliation between the government and the guerrillas.

Political crimes, by the government’s definition, have never included the majority of guerrilla activities - kidnappings, ambushes on army patrols and bloody raids on dozens of towns in the last 25 years.

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