MEXICO CITY -- The leadership of the Salvadoran rebels for the first time has announced a three-day election truce in hopes that opposition parties will gain a majority in the March 10 congressional elections and end the country's 11-year civil war.
The agreement came late Thursday night after a four-hour meeting in Mexico City with El Salvador's principal opposition parties.
Meanwhile yesterday, rebel forces struck at the country's main hydroelectric plant.
The military said 17 soldiers and six rebels were killed in the fighting, with 16 government troops and 20 guerrillas wounded. Damage assessments at the Chalatenango works were incomplete.
According to a communique from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the rebels will suspend their traditional campaign to interrupt the electoral process through sabotage and transportation strikes.
The electoral truce will be in effect from March 9 to March 11.
FMLN sources also indicated that it would encourage its allies in the labor unions and various leftist groups to vote for the opposition candidates.
Those groups have traditionally boycotted elections.
But it should be noted that few of the FMLN allies have registered to vote and that it is doubtful they will have time.
The communique said the action was being taken in the hopes of "bettering the election results leading to the possibility of a negotiated solution to the armed conflict," which has taken 72,000 lives.
United Nations-sponsored peace talks have been suspended pending the outcome of the elections for the 84-seat National Assembly.
The chamber is now dominated by a thin majority of President Alfredo Cristiani's right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym as ARENA.
If the opposition parties, together with more moderate ARENA candidates, win a majority, it would severely undercut the hard-line position of the Salvadoran military, which has resisted rebel proposals to radically change the role of the armed forces.
Several hard-liners and former military men, including Roberto D'Aubuisson, a cashiered major linked to death squads, are running.
Ruben Zamora, leader of the leftist Democratic Convergence coalition of three parties, said:
"The urge for peace is so great that we are hopeful we can get a majority.
"The people want peace, and that will be the sole test of who is able to deliver on that promise.
"ARENA has not been able to do it."
During El Salvador's 1989 presidential elections, Mr. Zamora pleaded unsuccessfully with the FMLN leadership to forgo its campaign of sabotage and strikes, saying they were counterproductive.
The Democratic Convergence failed to gain a single seat as ARENA swept into power, capturing the presidency, the legislature, the Supreme Court and a majority of the municipalities.
The ARENA victory was based in large part on its promise that its hard-line position would make the FMLN more open to a peace settlement. But this has not proven to be the case.
Later in 1989, the FMLN mounted a major offensive that rocked the capital and several provincial capitals, leading to more than 2,000 deaths, including six Jesuit priests who were murdered by the military. Smaller offensives have since been mounted.
Besides Mr. Zamora's coalition, the other opposition parties represented at the talks here were the centrist Christian Democratic Party and the leftist National Democratic Union. The FMLN was represented by four leaders, Shafik Handal, Joaquin Villalobos, Roberto Canas and Salvador Samayoa.