ON Saturday, Oct. 31, the 10-month-old Salvadoran peace process was supposed to come to a glorious conclusion. Instead, top United Nations negotiators flew to El Salvador yesterday in a last-minute salvage operation.
The process of winding down this 12-year civil war has been fraught with holdups and disputes. But in recent days, both sides have dug in their heels, each justifying their inaction with the other's noncompliance.
* The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was supposed to have demobilized all 8,000 of its troops by this weekend, but only 40 percent have turned in weapons.
* The government, among other delays, has not yet purged the Army of officers accused of corruption and human rights violations, as it promised.
On Monday, it appeared a breakthrough had been achieved. The Salvadoran rebels agreed to extend the cease-fire until Dec. 15 to give both sides time to live up to their ends of the bargain. At first, the government indicated a willingness to accept the later deadline. But in a televised address Wednesday, President Alfredo Cristiani rejected the bulk of the UN plan and drew a new line in the sand.
"The government ... is halting everything related to demobilization, reduction, and restructuring of the armed forces," he said. "It is not prepared to renew this process until all of the FMLN's weapons are being destroyed."
The Cristiani government and UN officials suspect that the FMLN has hidden caches of weapons not included in its official inventory list. But analysts also say Mr. Cristiani is under heavy pressure from the military and his own conservative party not to extend the Oct. 31 deadline.
"Things are very tense," says Mario Zamorano, United Nations spokesman in El Salvador.
Right-wing extremist groups are reemerging, placing adswarning that allowing the deadline to slip would be a violation of the UN-mediated peace accords. Death threats have been made against UN officials, journalists, and rebel leaders. One death squad, known as the Maximilian Hernandez Martinez Brigade, issued its first public statement in years, vowing to "begin carrying out death sentences" against the FMLN.
The FMLN has put its troops, stationed in 15 camps around El Salvador, on alert. "This is an explosive situation. The government knows who these death squads are. They're linked to the Army. And they're playing with fire," says an FMLN spokesman in Mexico City.
Fueling the volatility now is the pending "purification" of the Army. The deadline for this purge has already slipped at least once. Press reports say Cristiani sought to extend the military cuts until mid-1993 in a letter to the UN secretary-general sent earlier this week. His request was apparently rejected by UN officials.
In a show of support for the UN plan (and perhaps a recognition of the mounting pressure on Cristiani), the FMLN announced Wednesday it would unilaterally demobilize another 20 percent of its forces tomorrow, leaving just 40 percent under arms. "That could certainly help reduce the tension in the atmosphere," says Mr. Zamorano of the UN.
But UN peacekeeping chief Marrack Goulding and UN Assistant Secretary-General Alvaro de Soto, the architect of the peace accords, still have to devise a new timetable. The original agreement outlined phased reductions in forces with simultaneous government reforms. But the two sides have gotten out of sync.
The FMLN says it won't lay down all of its arms until the Army "purification" is under way, its legal status as a political party is settled, the military intelligence agency is disbanded, and judicial reforms are enacted - as stipulated in the accords. The government contends the FMLN does not deserve political recognition or concessions until it is no longer an armed force.