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Progress Seen in Talks to End Guatemalan War

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AFTER a six-month derailment, Guatemala's peace talks are back on track.

Although representatives of the government and the leftist rebels failed to reach an agreement after four days of talks that ended Feb. 26, both sides agreed to hold another round of discussions in Mexico City March 10.

In an unusually buoyant manner, mediator and Roman Catholic Monsignor Rodolfo Quezada Toruno told reporters: "For the first time I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Observers had hoped that this round would produce an agreement on human rights, the issue that has deadlocked the talks for months. In a move to break the impasse, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias in January offered to allow the United Nations to monitor a human rights accord between the sides, once it is reached, and challenged rebels to 90 days of nonstop talks to end Central America's longest-running war.

But this round focused instead on an agenda for future discussions, with an attempt to set deadlines on particular issues. Government negotiators offered the human rights agreement in exchange for a firm rebel agreement to a cease-fire in 90 days. Rebels pushed for an immediate investigation of war crimes committed by the armed forces. No accord was reached, but a joint statement noted "important advances" such as "discussions of mechanisms that will assure the success of the process in a prudent time pe riod."

The agenda itself appears to be a means of advancing the dialogue. "What was originally planned as an agenda is become, thank God, the path to take us to a solution to the armed conflict and the problems in my country," Monsignor Quezada said.

The peace talks began in 1991 after President Serrano took office, but soon faltered over the human rights issue. The urgency to get things moving again, analysts say, stems from the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to indigenous rights campaigner Rigoberta Menchu and from UN criticism of Guatemala's human rights record.

Guatemala remains the only nation in Central America still riven by war. Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela have been pushing the government to reach a settlement, diplomats say.

The country's Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), a coalition of four guerrilla groups, has been fighting successive Guatemalan governments for the last three decades. More than 120,000 people have died, and an estimated 200,000 have fled the Central American nation. In January, about 2,000 war refugees living in Mexico returned to Guatemala in the first organized effort to repatriate the war refugees.

Earlier last week, Quezada compared the negotiations to groping in the inpenetrable darkness of a tunnel.

"You start walking and you see the light at the entrance but there comes a moment when you have gone so far that you cannot see the light where you entered, nor the light at the exit ahead," he said. But apparently, he added, the two sides are now inching in the direction of the latter.


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