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  Colombian President-Elect Softens Tone on Rebels
Posted by CN Staff on May 27, 2002 at 22:25:11 PT
By Juan Ferero 
Source: New York Times  

justice He won the presidency promising to crack down on leftist rebels, but today President-elect Álvaro Uribe Vélez struck a conciliatory tone, holding out the possibility of negotiating with guerrilla commanders under United Nations mediation.

He told foreign journalists today that he hoped to set up a meeting with Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss the possibility of initiating talks with the United Nations.

Mr. Uribe also said that negotiations with a right-wing paramilitary group, bitter enemies of the rebels, were possible, a proposition his predecessors had declined to consider because of the widespread rights abuses perpetrated by the organization.

"We are going to look for general support for that initiative, and ask that the mission be completed by the United Nations," Mr. Uribe said.

"What mission?" he added. "The mission of establishing communications with the insurgent movement."

A United Nations official said the world organization was "following with great interest Mr. Uribe's statements regarding a future role for the United Nations in a new peace process."

Mr. Uribe's vice president-elect, Francisco Santos, said the idea was to "open the door" to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's largest and most powerful guerrilla organization.

Talks with the group were broken off by President Andrés Pastrana in February, as a result of a wave of rebel aggressions.

The guerrillas did not have an immediate response to Mr. Uribe's victory on Sunday or his comments today.

But analysts who have closely followed Colombia's conflict saw Mr. Uribe's remarks today as an effort to assuage concerns in the United States and Europe about his hard-line reputation by casting himself as a moderate willing to talk peace.

The analysts noted that the rebels were virtually sure to turn down any chance to negotiate under Mr. Uribe's demands: that they first declare a cease-fire and end hostile actions like kidnappings.

The rebels would be further alienated by Mr. Uribe's proposal to include the paramilitaries in talks.

"This to defuse his critics who say, based on his campaign, that he is a warrior, not a peacemaker," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington policy research group. "He has to communicate to the world that he is not Dr. Strangelove, that he's not going to blow up the country in the process of exterminating the guerrillas."

Mr. Birns, however, said there was little reason to believe that Mr. Uribe — who cast himself as the candidate of the "hard hand" during the campaign — would be committed to ensuring that negotiations reopened.

"He has to go through a pro-forma performance," Mr. Birns said, "so he will be able to say, `I've tried the negotiating card and it was not picked up."'

To be sure, the president-elect's main plank — to double the size of both the army's combat force and the National Police and create a million-member civilian force of informers — is seen by human rights groups as a dangerous plan that could lead to a wider war and increased rights abuses.

Mr. Uribe, however, says that Colombia is locked in a war against terrorism and should have the support of the international community. "Any country in a democratic world needs to have solidarity with the democratic society of Colombia, which is suffering this violence that is just terrorism," Mr. Uribe said in halting English.

During his campaign, Mr. Uribe was highly critical of President Pastrana's peace talks with rebels, which were held in the midst of a spiraling conflict and ultimately ended in failure. Mr. Pastrana did not ask for United Nations mediation during the talks, instead using peace negotiators from the organization as advisers to the two parties.

In the day since Mr. Uribe's election victory, congratulations have flowed in from the American ambassador, Anne Patterson, and other foreign officials. For many of them, Mr. Uribe's victory, by a margin that avoided a runoff for the first time in a decade, demonstrated unequivocal support for his proposals.

"The desire of the majority of the Colombian people has been to support the candidacy of Mr. Uribe," said José Salafranca, a Spaniard who led a mission of election observers from the European Community. "After yesterday's election, it is evident that he has enormous democratic legitimacy." For Mr. Uribe, remaining legitimate in the eyes of the world is crucial if his administration is to improve a slow-growing economy and receive the loans necessary to embark on various government programs.

Mr. Uribe, 49, who has studied at Harvard and Oxford, said he was counting on continued support from the United States to eradicate illegal drug crops and to deal with the rebels. The United States already helps Colombia on the drug war, but the Bush administration is trying to expand aid for counterguerrilla operations.

"We need the help of the United States in order to preserve our democracy," Mr. Uribe said. "And to preserve our democracy, we can no longer suffer from terrorism."

The president-elect also stressed the need to work closely with Colombia's neighbors on security issues.

Drug trafficking and the conflict often spill over Colombia's borders, particularly into Venezuela and Ecuador, with guerrillas and drug traffickers crossing frontiers.

"If this is not resolved, this conflict has the dangerous potential of destabilizing Latin America," he said.

Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: Juan Ferero
Published: May 28, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company

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