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Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 18:48 GMT
Colombian rebels turn down talks
FARC rebels
The rebels control 42,000 sq km safe haven
By Jeremy McDermott in Bogota

Colombian rebels have rejected the government's latest attempt to restart suspended peace talks while the army is moving troops near the guerrillas' safe haven, which is due to expire on 31 January.

Manuel "Sure Shot" Marulanda, the 70-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), said the government should prolong the safe haven indefinitely and approve a humanitarian exchange of six security force members in guerrilla hands for rebels in prison.

President Andres Pastrana, speaking from Paris where he is seeking European help for Colombia, insisted that unless the FARC returned to the peace table, such matters could not be negotiated.

The rebels suspended talks in November last year, saying they would not return until the government had done something to stop their sworn enemies, the paramilitary death squads.

Demands for tougher line

The 42,000 sq km FARC safe haven has been controversial ever since its creation more than two years ago. The rebels have been accused of using the zone to build up military strength, import arms, export drugs and recruit minors.

In two years of talks with the FARC there has been no concrete progress towards peace or even a ceasefire, and a recent poll conducted by the Colombian Caracol Network showed that 89% of those surveyed were against an extension of the safe haven.

The Colombian military has moved 2,500 more soldiers up to the border of the rebel safe haven, ready to retake the zone should it not be extended beyond the 31 January deadline - something that would ensure an end to hopes for peace.

Few people believe that President Pastrana, who has staked his whole presidency on a negotiated solution to Colombia's 37-year civil conflict, will send in the troops.

But pressure is mounting on the president to take a tougher line against guerrilla intransigence and make some real progress towards peace.

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See also:

18 Jan 01 | Americas
Villagers massacred in Colombia
06 Jan 01 | Americas
Twelve killed in Colombia massacre
25 Dec 00 | Americas
Colombia announces progress on peace
21 Dec 00 | Americas
Officers charged with massacre
06 Dec 00 | Americas
More Colombians flee violence
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
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