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Peace mission draws envoys to Colombia

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SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia — Ambassadors from 10 countries flew to guerrilla territory on Monday in a last-ditch effort to salvage Colombia's peace process hours before troops were to retake a rebel safe haven.

The diplomats also met for nearly five hours Sunday with President Andres Pastrana and other top officials, seeking solutions to the most serious impasse in three years of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Pastrana has given the FARC until 9:30 p.m. on Monday to either come up with a viable offer for restarting peace talks or vacate the safe haven, a zone twice the size of New Jersey. That could lead to a surge in fighting in the country's 38-year conflict.

Before leaving Bogota for San Vicente del Caguan, a rebel-controlled ranching town in the southern plains, the envoys expressed hope of brokering a last-minute agreement to avert wider war.

"We are going to propose solutions to President Pastrana and to (FARC) commander Manuel Marulanda," French Ambassador Daniel Parfait told reporters.

Parfait was accompanied on the mission by envoys from Canada, Sweden, Cuba, Norway, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland and Venezuela.

After landing in San Vicente del Caguan, they were expected to head directly to the nearby village of Los Pozos, where FARC rebels and U.N. envoy James LeMoyne awaited.

"We believe that if we manage to advance, that very soon the (two) sides can begin to talk again," LeMoyne told reporters early Monday.

Presidential peace envoy Camilo Gomez was also scheduled to arrive here Monday, to be available for any direct talks with the FARC before the deadline.

The 11th-hour diplomatic flurry came a day after rebels on Sunday angrily blamed Pastrana for the failure of peace talks — and announced preparations to vacate the main towns in the guerrilla safe haven, which Pastrana ceded provisionally to the FARC to encourage peace negotiations.

The rebel announcement appeared to dim any hopes of salvaging the process and stoked fears that Colombia's war will intensify. It came as government troops have been massing around the zone, awaiting orders to move in.

Colombia's conflict pits the U.S.-backed military and a brutal right-wing paramilitary group against the FARC and smaller guerrilla factions.

Pastrana ceded the guerrilla sanctuary — off-limits to government forces — because he believed it would create a calm climate for negotiations and give the FARC an incentive to make reciprocal peace concessions.

But talks begun in January 1999 have yielded little more than squabbling.

Meanwhile, the rebels allegedly hid kidnap victims in the zone and used it to traffic cocaine and train for attacks elsewhere in the South American country.

The FARC and the paramilitaries are growing strong off Colombia's cocaine trade. Washington is providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to battle insurgents involved in the narcotics industry.

Growing evidence about rebel abuses in the safe haven, attacks nationwide and ongoing guerrilla kidnappings turned Colombians against the peace process.

Few people sympathized with the FARC when they pulled out of talks in October, after the military increased its presence just outside the zone in a bid to clamp down on illegal rebel activities. The rebels agreed at the outset of the negotiations that they would relinquish the main towns in the zone should the peace process collapse.