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Progress and Peril in El Salvador

COMPLIANCE with the terms of the peace accord in El Salvador has proceeded smoothly, all things considered. The agreement ending the brutal 12-year civil war was signed in January by representatives of the Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of leftist organizations that fielded a guerrilla army.

The pact calls for, among other things, the demobilization of the guerrilla forces in five stages. This week, in the third of those stages, several thousand FMLN soldiers are scheduled to surrender their weapons under the supervision of United Nations monitors. Under the negotiated timetable, demobilization is to be completed by Oct. 31.

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The peace process is entering a dicey period, however. Distrust between the old antagonists runs deep. Wary of possible government foot-dragging on promised reforms as the FMLN loses its military leverage, the FMLN has threatened to halt demobilization absent further government assurances.

The FMLN is especially insistent on reforms in the Salvadoran police and security forces designed to ensure the safety of government opponents and their families. Opposition leaders have accused President Alfredo Cristiani's government of fudging on the dissolution of notorious special security units once implicated in death-squad killings.

Now the FMLN is waiting to see if President Cristiani will accept the recommendations of a commission studying reform of the Salvadoran Army. A secret report to the president is believed to call for a significant purge of senior officers. Other difficult steps remain to be taken, including land redistribution and judicial reform.

Given the war's legacy of bitterness and El Salvador's deep social and economic rifts, peace is making remarkable progress. But land mines still strew the path. It's essential that the UN and the United States, though beset with numerous other claims on their attention and resources, do not disengage from El Salvador at this critical juncture.

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