- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia Leftist rebels declared the peace process over yesterday and prepared to abandon the safe haven that has served as their headquarters during three years of negotiations.
Moments before the announcement by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a military warplane circled in the hamlet of Los Pozos over the site of the failed peace talks. Troops massed in military bases across the country, and even reservists were called to duty, prepared to retake the guerrilla sanctuary, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey.
The government ceded the zone to the rebels, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, to meet a condition to start the peace talks, and the rebels had pledged to give it back if the talks ended.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana, meanwhile, met with his country's armed forces commander Gen. Fernando Tapias at the presidential palace in the capital, Bogota. There was no statement from the government or the military at the end of the closed-door discussion.
Three years of talks had yielded only squabbling, and at midnight Saturday Mr. Pastrana's patience appeared to have worn out. He ordered the insurgents to come up with a viable peace offer or leave by tonight.
"The ultimatum … handed down by the president changes everything we have agreed upon during the past three years and thus closes all possibilities for the current process," said Simon Trinidad, a FARC commander. Mr. Trinidad did not say exactly when his group would withdraw from the towns in the zone.
However, he said the rebels had been in contact with Fidel Castro, adding that the Cuban leader might be able to break the impasse.
The swift turn of events indicates Colombia's 38-year-old civil war which pits the U.S.-backed military and a brutal right-wing paramilitary group against the FARC and smaller guerrilla factions will intensify.
"The next six months are probably going to be the bloodiest we've seen," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Center for International Policy in Washington.
Mr. Isacson said he didn't expect a big battle to erupt in the safe haven, because the rebels may melt away into the jungle, but he predicted fighting would intensify elsewhere, a fear shared by many Colombians.
"If there is war, it'll hit the whole country, and I won't feel safe just because I live in the city," said Isabel Martinez, a 22-year-old resident of Bogota.
Residents of the safe haven's main town were terrified the illegal paramilitary force which has secret links with some military units would enter the zone and begin executing them merely because they have coexisted with the rebels.
"We're very afraid," said Isabel Gonzalez, a maid who has two sons and three daughters. She fears her children will be killed or forcibly recruited into the ranks of the paramilitaries or rebels. "Oh God, please help us," she moaned.
U.N. envoy James LeMoyne, who stayed in the zone yesterday despite the fading hopes of salvaging the peace process, urged the paramilitaries to refrain from violence and insisted Colombian forces provide security.
Inside the zone yesterday, rebels disbanded checkpoints, preparing to give up the area's five main towns as previously agreed if the peace process failed. The guerrillas were expected to try to hold on to their longtime strongholds in the surrounding villages and countryside.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with Mr. Pastrana yesterday after the rebels announced their pullout. The United States has trained and equipped some Colombian military units, mostly for missions against insurgents directly involved in the country's cocaine and heroin trade.
However, the U.S. government has labeled the FARC a terrorist organization, leaving open the possibility it may later provide direct counterinsurgency aid.

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