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El Salvador's Only Option

HOPES for peace in El Salvador have gone up in gunsmoke again. Just weeks ago representatives of the warring parties - the Faribundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government - were facing each other at the bargaining table. Those talks deadlocked, as they had before.

Surrender, instead of patient work toward consensus on the needs of the country, seemed to be what the negotiators had in mind. There had been glints of optimism, since the FMLN has in the past year indicated a readiness to move toward political participation, instead of armed conflict. The sides agreed to further talks this month in Venezuela.

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But the shooting intervened. The rebels' countrywide offensive is extending a decade-long civil war that has already taken the lives of 70,000 Salvadorans. FMLN soldiers say they'll fight until they gain power; more likely, they're battling for a stronger position back at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, combat centers in the poor neighborhoods of the capital, San Salvador, with rebels holed up in homes and helicopter gunships strafing overhead.

Whose side are the people on? Reports tell of citizens furious with the FMLN for bringing the war to their doorstep again. Other people apparently serve as scouts for the rebels, warning them of government troop movements. The overwhelming popular sentiment, however, is for a lasting peace.

Every pressure should be applied toward that end. Aid from the United States props up the country. When the fighting again subsides and negotiations resume, Washington should insist that the government take up the FMLN's political initiatives as a starting point for more productive talks. The social and economic inequities that bred rebellion will also have to be recognized and addressed.

On the other side, the arms flow to the FMLN must be shut down. The rebels know the supply pipeline from the East - Moscow to Havana to Managua - is likely to dry up as East bloc politics change.

Both sides have to move toward the only feasible option left - peaceful political competition.

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