Land -- Key to War, Key to Peace
Colombia extends rebel land-for-peace deal
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Colombia's leading rebel army will control a vast swath of territory around this town in the country's southern jungle and savanna for at least another six months, a government official said on Saturday.
Strange, isn't it, how people can claim that the wars in Colombia are about drugs, or the CIA, or ideologies, or freedom, or fascism, but when it comes down to settling a peace plan, the one item that tops everyone's list is LAND.
The Switzerland-sized safe haven was ceded by President Andres Pastrana to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November of last year to jump-start a peace process aimed at ending the country's long-running guerrilla war, which has taken more than 35,000 lives over the last decade.
The territorial handover was set to end next Tuesday, when Pastrana theoretically could have poured government troops back into the 16,000 square mile (42,000 sq km) area.
But Victor Ricardo, the government's chief peace negotiator, told reporters Pastrana had extended the deadline for the troop pullout until June 7 of next year.
A government resolution, giving the government's official blessing to prolonged rebel control over the enclave, was signed by the ministers of justice, defence and the interior as well as by Pastrana himself, Ricardo said.
The deal creating ``Farclandia,'' as some jokers have taken to calling this dusty cattle town and four other municipalities from which Pastrana has withdrawn security forces, is highly controversial and prompted the resignation in May of Rodrigo Lloreda, the government's widely respected former defence minister.
No ceasefire deal has been reached as part of the slow-moving peace process. And military officials argue that the supposed demilitarized zone has become a garrison from which the FARC's estimated 17,000 fighters can launch attacks across the country.
Adding to the controversy over the FARC's control over the safe haven is the fact that it is located near one of Colombia's richest coca producing regions, the raw material for cocaine.
Officials say the drug trade is one of the FARC's main sources of financing for its war against the state, together with a nationwide campaign of kidnapping, extortion and banditry.
Plans by Iranian investors to build a meat packing and storage facility in San Vicente have also caused some alarm, amid recent media reports that the FARC had hired military advisers or explosives experts from Tehran.
Iranian embassy officials in Bogota have staunchly denied the reports.
The FARC and smaller National Liberation Army have sharply escalated their attacks against population centres this year, even as the country's fledgling peace process moves forward.
According to a report issued by the army Friday, the two rebel groups raided 67 towns and villages in the first 11 months of 1999 compared to just 27 attacks during the same period last year.
This news story was sent to us by the Colombian Labor Monitor.
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