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Details of a Peace Plan Begin to Emerge in El Salvador

A CONFIDENTIAL United Nations plan to recognize zones held by Salvadoran rebels in exchange for a cease-fire is meeting resistance from Salvadoran and United States officials, sources close to the peace talks say. UN mediator Alvaro de Soto denied that a formal plan exists, even as a new round of talks was set to begin Feb. 18 in an undisclosed location.

But analysts close to the negotiations cite a draft plan that would temporarily partition the Salvadoran countryside into guerrilla and Army areas. It would also begin halting hostilities in the 11-year civil war. About 8,000 UN troops would reportedly buffer the factions.

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``The United Nations appears to be looking in terms of a `green line,''' says a source close to the talks, referring to the boundary established between previously warring factions in Beirut.

Earlier this month, at the most recent of ongoing UN-mediated negotiations, top rebel commander Joaqu'in Villalobos was reportedly ready to agree to the proposal. Neither faction, however, will acknowledge the existence of any document detailing such zones.

Rebel leaders say they already have a political structure in areas of the countryside. They seek to maintain their authority in these zones after a cease-fire. The UN plan calls for rebels in such areas to disarm and to transform themselves into a political party.

US and Salvadoran officials categorically oppose recognition of rebel-held territory. ``The rebels don't control any territory,'' says a US Embassy official.

But analysts speculate that rebels hold de facto control of at least one-fifth of the countryside. Government soldiers frequently patrol rebel strongholds, but usually cannot remain without incurring heavy casualties.

Although the talks have been stuck on the territorial control issue, they have also been undercut by accusations of favoritism. US State Department officials recently leaked remarks to the press critical of Mr. De Soto. Comments from a US official saying De Soto ``accedes to the guerrillas' delaying tactics'' were featured in a recent New York Times article. State Department officials later denounced the characterization, saying the administration fully backs UN efforts.

Ant'onio Canas, a political analyst at the Jesuit-run University of Central America, sees the leak as an attack on De Soto's authority. Mr. Canas says lack of support by US officials for UN initiatives, as well as last month's decision to resume full US military aid to El Salvador, have hardened the Army's position in the talks.

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``US officials are aware of the lack of willingness of the government and the Army to submit to initiatives,'' Canas says. ``But the US has transferred the blame onto other parties, at a cost of undermining the work of the United Nations.''

A military source says US intelligence analyses predict the rebels can only fight at current levels for a year to 18 months given pressure on their supply lines because of government changes in Nicaragua and Panama, and international pressure on Cuba. Independent analysts, however, say the rebels can fight for years.

``The Army doesn't feel they are pressed to negotiate,'' says a source close to the Salvadoran military. ``And the North Americans think time is on their side.''

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