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Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 06:31 GMT
Analysis: FARC holds all the cards
FARC rebels in the demilitarized zone
FARC has an estimated 17,000 members
By Jeremy McDermott in Bogota

Manuel Marulanda, the head of Colombia's largest rebel army, has been outwitting and out-manoeuvring the country's presidents and generals for more than 40 years.

He looks set to do so again this Thursday when he meets President Andres Pastrana face-to-face as the latter tries to save his faltering peace process.

FARC leader Manuel
Mr Marulanda has seen presidents come and go
More than 40 years, ago Mr Marulanda headed a band of some 20 guerrillas, dodging military patrols and living furtively in the jungle.

Now he leads the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and it is the military that - more often than not - seek to avoid him.

Not bad for a man who had the most rudimentary of education and has never lived in a city.

President's weak hand

On Thursday, President Pastrana goes down to the 42,000-square-kilometre Farc safe haven to try to persuade Mr Marulanda to restart stalled peace talks.

As usual, the wily 70-year-old guerrilla leader is holding all the cards.

The bottom line is that Mr Pastrana has staked his presidency on finding a negotiated solution to Colombia's civil conflict and has a year-and-a-half left of his administration to show some results.

President Andres Pastrana
Mr Pastrana's course has been unpopular
Mr Marulanda, as head of the FARC, has seen 10 presidents come and go and he will only proceed at his own pace and on his own terms.

But President Pastrana is under increasing pressure from a disillusioned Colombian public to get tough with the FARC.

They are tired of repeated concessions to the guerrillas, who have only replied with record levels of kidnapping, violence and instability.

No aces

But President Pastrana has no ace up his sleeve, no way to really put pressure on the guerrillas.

FARC guerillas
The FARC has little to fear from the army
His army, even boosted by the lion's share of $1.3 billion of US military aid, has no chance of defeating the FARC militarily.

But nor is the FARC able to fulfil its stated aim of seizing power.

So the best President Pastrana can hope for on Thursday is that Mr Marulanda will agree to resume talks.

But the rebel leader is expected to charge a high price: a renewal of the safe haven until the end of the Pastrana administration, a prisoner exchange and more promises from the government to fight the right-wing paramilitaries that have been killing suspected guerillas.

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See also:

02 Feb 01 | Americas
FARC 'to resume peace talks'
31 Jan 01 | Americas
Colombia extends rebel refuge
23 Jan 01 | Americas
Colombian rebels turn down talks
14 Jan 01 | Americas
Eyewitness: Inside a cocaine factory
13 Jan 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Welcome to Farclandia
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
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