Salvadoran government and guerrillas reach a last-minute agreement . . . that clears the way for cease-fire talks to end their 11-year-old civil war

April 28, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

MEXICO CITY -- The Salvadoran government and guerrillas reached an accord yesterday that cleared the way for cease-fire talks to end their 11-year-old war.

Both sides viewed the agreement as a major step toward ending a war that has cost more than 72,000 lives.

The two sides are to hold another round of talks next month on the cease-fire arrangements and on a cleanup of the army.

The unprecedented 25 days of talks were slated to have resolved those two issues as well, but they eventually got bogged down on constitutional changes sought by the rebels' Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

These were resolved in the last 24 hours, with the rebels winning approval of their central demand for a reduced military role and increased civil authority over the armed forces.

The military -- which ruled El Salvador for most of this century, until the 1980s -- has been linked to several massacres and to the killings of prominent opponents, such as the six Jesuit academics murdered in 1989.

The scene now shifts to San Salvador, where the Legislative Assembly is poised to begin consideration of the changes, possibly as early as tomorrow.

The talks had a constitutional deadline to meet because the amendments must be adopted by two consecutive sessions of the national legislature. The current assembly's term expires midnight Tuesday, with the next assembly taking office the following day.

The aim is to have the changes approved tomorrow or Tuesday and then adopted by the incoming assembly within a few days.

Alvaro de Soto, the suave Peruvian diplomat who mediated the talks for the United Nations, said he was counting on President Alfredo Cristiani's written commitment to back the changes.

But it was by no means clear that Mr. Cristiani could control the more conservative members of his party who dominate the assembly. Many are former military officers with extremely right-wing views.

Among the military reforms was a civilian-controlled police force and a proposal that would extend the president's authority over the army to other executive agencies.

The intelligence service also would be placed directly under the president and removed from military control altogether. The nation's three police agencies also are currently under military control.

A major political reform would bar one party from controlling the election appeals commission, now dominated by the ruling right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena. Another would lessen the chance of political meddling in the Supreme Court, now also in the hands of the ruling party.

Other changes would require the government to spend at least 6 percent of the annual budget on the financially starved judicial system and would create an elected attorney general for human rights.

The FMLN had concentrated on those areas to establish a political environment for a U.N.-supervised cease-fire.

But as the talks wore on, the rebels felt that Mr. Cristiani had reneged on substantive constitutional changes, bowing to ultra-right forces.

Earlier this month, the United States had dispatched Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bernard Aronson, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, to stiffen the Cristiani government's resolve.

But by Friday it appeared that the FMLN would make only small advances and that months of negotiations lay ahead, leading to increased fighting.

The negotiating teams were at the point of recessing when the U.N. mediator, Mr. de Soto, offered a compromise proposal that rekindled the interest of both sides.

The talks, which began April 3, have three components: a cease-fire, the armed forces and the constitutional changes.

El Salvador's four principal parties, after visiting the talks here last week, had agreed to more than 30 constitutional changes, including the creation of the prosecutor and a National Civil Police force, as well as reforms of the Supreme Court and the election appeals board.

Miguel Saenz, a member of the FMLN diplomatic mission here, said many of the changes were cosmetic, full of loopholes or inadequate to curb the army.

After the accord was reached yesterday, Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a top FMLN commander, said that the rebels "were very satisfied."

The FMLN is hopeful that the cease-fire agreement will allow its armed forces to retire to zones now under its control, while permitting the organization to enter the political process in time for the 1994 presidential elections.

The FMLN would like to move its newspaper and radio station to San Salvador.

Still ahead are negotiations for purging the army. Col. Mauricio Vargas, the government's top military negotiator, has said that the 56,000-man force could be cut by half -- to its prewar level.

The FMLN is anxious to rid the military of human rights violators.

Mr. de Soto said that the sides had agreed to let U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar name the three civilians who will make up the Committee of Truth, a group that will issue a report on noted human rights cases since 1980.

These include the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Jesuit case and several massacres.

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