President Andres Pastrana broke off peace negotiations with the country’s largest rebel group, giving the guerrillas until noon today to leave the special demilitarized zone created for talks.
In a nationally televised address, Pastrana said guerrillas from the FARC--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia--had crossed the line Wednesday when they hijacked a plane and kidnapped Sen. Jorge Gechen Turbay, 50, president of the Colombian Senate’s peace commission.
Several guerrillas, including two women, reportedly boarded a local flight carrying the senator and forced it to land on a highway outside the capital, Bogota, where they seized the senator and presumably took him back to the zone.
“Today the glass of indignation spilled over,” Pastrana said. “It’s not possible to sign agreements on one side while putting guns to the head on the other. . . . Now no one believes in their willingness to reach peace.”
Rebel leaders issued a response early today in which they angrily accused Pastrana of using war as a political tactic. The first round of presidential elections in Colombia begins in May, and congressional elections take place next month. Candidates pushing a hard line against the FARC have become increasingly popular as ordinary Colombians grow tired of the up-and-down peace process.
“The president has shown his commitment to war,” the rebel communique said.
Pastrana’s decision marks the most serious rupture in a recent series of crises in the 3-year-old peace process.
In January, Pastrana gave the rebels 48 hours to leave the zone, which was created in an attempt to end Colombia’s nearly 40-year-old civil war between government forces and leftist rebels.
But last-minute intervention from the United Nations and ambassadors from 10 countries allowed the process to continue.
It was difficult to see how such intervention could succeed again, especially given the 12-hour time frame that Pastrana gave the rebels to evacuate.
The guerrillas were expected to leave the five small towns that exist in the Switzerland-size zone and flee into the surrounding jungle, where they have dominated for most of the civil war.
“I support his decision. There was no other decision he could have made,” said Juan Camilo Restrepo, who is running to replace Pastrana.
Pastrana, a Conservative Party member, is constitutionally banned from running for a second term.