Oct 17, 2000 - 05:47 PM

Colombians Meet to Try to Keep Their Country From "the Abyss of War"
By Andrew Selsky
Associated Press Writer

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) - Some came straight from war zones, others from churches, jails and Indian reservations to talk peace Tuesday in an unprecedented effort to end Colombia's bloody conflict.
Buoyed by a prayer from Pope John Paul II read at the conference's opening at a heavily guarded luxury hotel, more than 100 delegates discussed issues ranging from human rights to eradication of drug crops.
Envoys of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and of the European Union urged delegates to find ways to end the 36-year war, which has grown more brutal in recent months with massacres by right-wing paramilitary squads and leftist rebels.

"I think Colombia is on its road to peace, but whether it takes one year or 10, I don't know," said U.N. envoy Jan Egeland, of Norway, who helped mediate the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Conference organizer Jorge Rojas said Monday that the armed conflict "threatens to take the country to the abyss of war and close the little space left for political dialogue."

Rojas heads a nonprofit organization attending to the plight of some 2 million Colombian civilians who have fled their homes in the past 15 years. The conflict kills an estimated 3,000 people annually, mostly civilians.

Representatives of Colombia's second-biggest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, attended the talks. But notably absent was the biggest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
In an interview posted on the Internet, a FARC spokeswoman said the Costa Rica meeting would detract from formal peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andres Pastrana.

"We think this is a way to play to the 'gringos' and to Pastrana now that they don't want to continue with the peace process but instead pursue Plan Colombia," spokeswoman Olga Marin told the Sweden-based New Colombia News Agency, an authoritative source for FARC pronouncements.
Still, the encounter was the broadest-based effort yet to end the war, organizers said.

Priests in clerical garb, Indians with traditional woven hats and face paint, diplomats from the United States and other countries, Colombian government officials and rebels in chinos and sport shirts met at the conference, which ends Wednesday.

Colombian Indians from a half-dozen tribes, speaking in their native tongues, gave their blessing at the start of the conference.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Roberto Rojas said the conference was "a seed" of peace "which I hope will be planted in fertile soil."

The war is expected to escalate once a U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive gets fully under way next year as part of Pastrana's so-called Plan Colombia.

U.S.-trained army battalions, ferried aboard U.S.-made combat helicopters, will be assigned to wrest control of cocaine- and heroin-producing plantations from leftist rebels. Planes would then spray the crops with herbicide.
Rojas urged a suspension of Plan Colombia, which he called "a plan of "war."

He also called for a 100-day cease-fire in Colombia beginning Dec. 1.
Peace talks between the government and both rebel groups have foundered and fighting has become more savage. Right-wing paramilitary gunmen killed six unarmed peasants on a farm in northeast Casanare State on Monday, police said.

Also Monday, the Colombian military purged nearly 400 mostly lower-ranking officers and soldiers. Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez said the firings were unrelated to U.S. pressure to improve the military's human rights record.

Leslie Bassett, a U.S. Embassy official from Bogota who was observing the conference, said she welcomed suggestions on Plan Colombia so that it could be carried out with minimal damage.

The ELN, in a statement, blasted the plan as a guise for Washington to exert control over Colombia and to increase profits for U.S. arms companies. The group also turned down a proposal launched at the conference to halt
kidnappings, saying it needed ransom money to fund its insurgency, a participant at a closed-door human rights session told the Associated Press.

AP-ES-10-17-00 1742EDT
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