The Salvadoran army announced it was calling off all offensive military operations as of midnight Tuesday until June 1 in an effort to create an atmosphere for negotiations to end the country’s nine-year civil war.
The Ministry of Defense also called on the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla movement to accept a simultaneous cease-fire.
“If this condition is met,” the three-paragraph Defense Ministry communique said, “we can go on to the next step.” That was a reference to talks between government and guerrilla officials.
The army proposal took on added significance in terms of the overall drive for a settlement, since until Tuesday it had totally rejected any talks with the guerrillas on their proposal for delaying the presidential election because the constitution requires a vote in March.
And the military, by saying that the cease-fire supports a proposal offered Sunday by President Jose Napoleon Duarte that includes delaying the election to April 30, made a major concession and apparently removed an obstacle to negotiations.
Rebel spokesmen in Mexico City said they would not respond to the army statement until this morning. Earlier, however, the rebels had said that talks on ending the fighting, which has claimed more than 45,000 lives in nine years of warfare, cannot begin unless both sides accept a cease-fire, its duration limited to the times of the talks.
Sources close to the army said that if the FMLN, as the Marxist guerrillas are commonly known, does not respond, “the troops will not just sit and be shot at.”
The army’s intentions were clouded by the lack of any detail about how long the military would hold back if the guerrillas continue their attacks today and what constitutes offensive operations.
For instance, the sources said that not all the government troops would be pulled back into their barracks and that patrols would continue in the countryside.
The army announcement came a few hours after the rebels made their latest announcement in the rounds of declarations, proposals and counterproposals that have marked efforts over the last month to arrange some sort of negotiated settlement.
The guerrillas Tuesday called for two days of meetings with government leaders Saturday and Sunday in San Salvador on the question of postponing the presidential election now set for March 19.
The proposal also repeated previous demands that the new election be held Sept. 15, that the army be reduced from 56,000 to 12,000 and that military officers be tried and punished for alleged human rights violations.
If the government agrees to delay the presidential voting, the rebels then would accept a total cease-fire with a dismantling of their own forces after completion of the other negotiating aspects.
The rebel proposal Tuesday was a response to Duarte’s proposal Sunday to set back the elections to April 30, hold talks between the warring sides that would have started today in Guatemala and observe a cease-fire as of midnight Tuesday.
The army statement said that the “unilateral cease-fire” was being called “in support of President Duarte’s proposal.”
Both the Duarte and the FMLN proposed cease-fires would end June 1, the date when a new president is to be sworn into office. At that point, both sides assume the war would be over on whatever conditions had been agreed to in the meantime.
The effect of the army cease-fire proposal is to put the onus on the guerrillas for continuing the war. Its announcement said that a rebel suspension of fighting would “comply with the Salvadoran people’s desire for peace.”