A Salvadoran army call for a cease-fire in the country’s nine-year civil war was answered Wednesday by Marxist guerrilla bombs, bullets and hard words.
Within hours after the army had said it was suspending all offensive operations as of midnight Tuesday until June 1, units of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front struck at several military and civilian targets.
Then the guerrillas issued a communique saying that the military was engaging only in “a publicity stunt” and that they would not accept a cease-fire unless it was first negotiated between the two sides. Otherwise, the statement said, the rebels will keep fighting.
“A cease-fire not reached between the two parties isn’t real,” the communique said, “it is a hidden trap.”
The guerrilla stance seemed to harden or even reverse previous positions on a truce. In their latest negotiating proposal, the rebels had suggested a cease-fire to go into effect during proposed talks Saturday in San Salvador without first settling terms for an end to the shooting.
Wednesday’s communique also said the rebel organization was waiting for President Jose Napoleon Duarte to answer its Monday proposal for the weekend talks, which would deal with delaying a presidential election set for March 19.
Duarte has said the vote could be set back to April 30, while the rebels want the balloting delayed until Sept. 15. If that is done and the army agrees to cut its forces from 56,000 to the prewar level of 12,000 and to put on trial officers accused of human rights violations, the guerrillas say they will disarm and accept the election results.
Duarte said Wednesday that he and leaders of the National Assembly have agreed to form a commission to meet with the guerrillas, but there was no consensus about when and where the government now wants the talks.
As to the guerrilla refusal to honor an immediate cease-fire, the president said that was “not a prerequisite” for the negotiations.
But Assembly President Ricardo Alvarenga, who also is a senior leader in the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party (Arena) and a political foe of Duarte, said that “there must be a cessation of hostilities in order to begin conversations.”
In 5 1/2 weeks of the current effort to reach a peace agreement, all sides have been open to charges of cynical manipulations to get someone else to take the blame for blocking peace discussions.
Some diplomats suggest that the army’s cease-fire call may have put the rebels in that position. “It could have been their first mistake,” one diplomat said. “Now they are the ones who are seen as keeping the fighting going.”
The statement by the FMLN, as the rebels are commonly known, appeared to anticipate that charge by contending that the army’s cease-fire was obviously not sincere because government troops were not being pulled back into their barracks and “repression in the cities was not being ended.”
This was a reference to the roadblocks, arrests and sometimes the killings of suspected FMLN members and sympathizers by army and security forces in urban areas.
The first armed response to the government cease-fire came at a coffee refinery, 20 minutes by road from the center of San Salvador, where guerrillas drove off 10 National Guard defenders and burned the plant.
Bombs destroyed electrical transmission facilities throughout the capital, cutting lights and power to large areas. Telephone service was also severely curtailed when explosives destroyed lines serving the city center.
But the most serious answer to the cease-fire was a morning attack by a large force of guerrillas against an army base at Santa Rosa de Lima, a city in the province of La Union, about 120 miles east of San Salvador.
The FMLN said it killed 67 soldiers while wounding 25 others, which would be the worst casualties suffered by the army in a single battle in two years.
However, diplomats said those were probably exaggerated figures. The military command said only two soldiers were killed in the fighting while seven were wounded. The army reported that two guerrillas and a civilian died.
The FMLN said its troops will continue fighting, but “at the moment that we reach an agreement for dates for a meeting in the capital, we will decree an end to offensive operations in all those areas where the army has retired and stopped its operations.”
The guerrillas also pledged to end sabotage and attacks on urban targets at that time, but both aspects of their cease-fire are limited to the duration of the talks, not the three months specified for the government cease-fire.