Church Helps Rescue Colombian Peace Process

President Pastrana Lifts Ultimatum Following Agreement with FARC

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BOGOTA, Colombia, JAN. 15, 2002 ( The help of the Catholic Church was crucial in continuing the fragile peace process in Colombia, which was set to fail on Monday.

Archbishop Alberto Giraldo, president of the Colombian episcopal conference, applauded an agreement between the government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was reached just four hours before President Andrés Pastrana´s deadline on an ultimatum was to come into effect.

Had no agreement been reached, about 12,000 troops would have invaded a 42,000-square-kilometer enclave (twice the size of El Salvador) with tanks, airplane and helicopters.

The agreement was reached after an intense day of negotiations, which included the participation of Archbishop Giraldo and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Beniamino Stella. Also crucial was the work of U.N. delegate James LeMoyne, who was supported by 10 ambassadors of countries promoting the peace process.

The failure of the summit of Los Pozos, a village of the Caguan region where the peace negotiations were held, would have meant the end of three years of negotiations between the government and FARC. More than 40,000 people have died in Colombian conflicts over the past decade.

Nevertheless, President Pastrana urged FARC to conclude concrete armistice agreements before Jan. 20, when the validity of the rebel-held zones comes to an end.

According to the agreement, FARC and the government will begin immediate discussions on the cessation of hostilities, the suspension of kidnappings, and the arrival «in the short term at concrete agreements.» The guerrilla group reversed itself for the first time in three years and accepted Pastrana´s conditions to stop the clock of war.

For its part, the government committed itself to combat paramilitary groups with all its powers.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was pleased with the agreement and congratulated both Pastrana and the rebel leader, Manuel Marulanda, alias «Sharpshooter.» Marulanda is supreme commander of FARC, which numbers some 17,000 combatants.

The peace talks were suspended by the guerrillas in mid-October, when they demanded that the government lift the military surveillance operations in the enclave´s surroundings.

The Pastrana government, whose term ends Aug. 7, remained firm and refused to suspend controls, including entry restrictions for foreign citizens.

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