Han Speckens on 10 Dec 2000 20:52:10 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Time Is Our Worst Enemy

 U.N. Envoy: Time for Peace Running Out in Colombia

Sun Dec 10 17:50:27 2000 GMT

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The opportunity to achieve a peace agreement among Colombia's warring factions is slipping away after two years of talks and the parties to the conflict should seize the chance to "avoid a war that could be very cruel and could come very soon," a U.N. special envoy said.

"This peace process has produced little and has many difficulties," said Jan Egeland, a U.N. special envoy who met with leaders from both sides of the conflict last week. "But an imperfect peace process is better than a perfect war."

Egeland's remarks in an interview with Reuters and the leading Colombian daily El Tiempo came Friday, two days after President Andres Pastrana extended until Jan. 31 the life of a vast rebel safe haven in southeastern Colombia, but with tighter restrictions.

The area, about the size of Switzerland, has been the venue for slow-moving peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the region's strongest guerrilla group.

By extending the life of the enclave for only 55 more days, Pastrana was trying to force the FARC, a 1960s-style guerrilla army made up mostly of peasants, to resume the peace talks they froze on Nov. 14.

The talks were launched by Pastrana and FARC leaders two years ago in an effort to end a 3-decade-old conflict that has become increasingly savage and has taken the lives of 35,000 civilians since 1990.

But negotiations have faltered and more and more Colombians -- including senior military officers and powerful business groups -- are clamoring for a harder line against the 17,000-strong FARC.

"This is a historic time for Colombia and I don't want to underestimate what could happen if we all don't do what is possible to continue with the peace process. Let's avoid a war that could be very cruel and could come very soon," said Egeland, 43, a former Norwegian Foreign Ministry official.

Egeland, who has mediated peace talks in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, was appointed a year ago as special envoy to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to seek peace in Colombia, a South American country described by a top U.S. military official as the most dangerous place on Earth.


Egeland said he was aware of the challenges ahead.

In the last year, guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries who are their arch-enemies have destroyed entire mountain towns with crude homemade mortars, massacred peasants selected from "hit lists" and kidnapped civilians for ransom.

Public confidence in the peace negotiations has fallen to its lowest level since talks began in November 1998.

As disillusionment deepens, paramilitary squads, created in the 1960s as self-defense groups, have swollen to 8,000 members nationwide. National and international human rights activists say the paramilitaries enjoy the backing of the army.

"There are a lot of enemies of the peace process in Colombia. The enemies of peace are increasingly stronger and the friends of peace are increasingly weaker," Egeland said.

He particularly warned against growing support for paramilitary activity, saying: "I believe the paramilitaries can become a terrible problem for all if it is not prevented."

Last week Egeland met with Pastrana and with the FARC's top commander, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda. Thursday, the government announced it was nearing an agreement with the rebels to exchange sick and injured prisoners.

Egeland hoped a swap, which would be the first breakthrough in the peace process, would expand into a "global accord on both sides to respect human rights."

But distrust among the parties is firmly rooted. The FARC has warned that Pastrana's so-called Plan Colombia, which includes a U.S.-backed and funded effort to eradicate the country's drug trade, threatens to derail peace efforts altogether.

Meanwhile, there is pessimism that the guerrillas, well-armed and flush with drug money, are willing to compromise on their demands for land reform and wealth redistribution.

If peace wins out, Egeland promised "unprecedented backing of the international community toward Colombia." But he warned it is the "moment of truth for rescuing the peace process."

"Time," he said, "is our worst enemy."