President Jose Napoleon Duarte said today that he would not attend the government's second peace meeting with rebel representatives that is expected to be held late next week.
Duarte said he would not attend because the next meeting, unlike the ground breaking first meeting Oct. 15 at the Salvadoran mountain town of La Palma, would deal only with procedural issues.
Duarte said at a press conference at his presidential palace, "This meeting is to discuss mechanisms and the president will not go out to discuss who is going to talk first, who is going to talk second."
The president also dismissed criticism of how he handled the scheduling of the meeting, contained in a communique from the leadership of the guerrilla's Farabundo Marti Liberation Front and their political wing, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, that was aired on the rebels' clandestine Radio Venceremos this morning.
The guerrilla communique had complained that Duarte was "unilaterally" setting the date and place for the next meeting without consulting them or having the courtesy to give them substantial advance notice of his talks' schedule.
Although the guerrillas had asked the government more than three weeks ago for a meeting in San Salvador on Nov. 27, they claimed that as of last night they had heard no official reply to their proposal.
Duarte revealed Wednesday that he had given a reply the night before to Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, the agreed moderator of the peace talks. The archbishop has said he will announce the date and place of the meeting Sunday during mass at San Salvador's cathedral.
Duarte meanwhile confirmed that he had set the next meeting only after consultations with the nation's armed forces' officer corps, which had been rumored to be restive about continuing talks with the rebels in view of their continued attacks.
"I have met with all the commands of the armed forces to discuss this and to give them information and all my political concepts on how this whole peace process here is to be handled," Duarte said. "And the high command and all commanders of the country have responded with complete support for whatever decision we take in this matter."
"But there was no question -- and I cannot ignore -- the rumors that there were people of the right trying to get connected with military people to try to stop this pacification process," the president admitted. "But I can tell you that they failed, and the response of the commands of all battalions of the country was positive."
Various informed sources, both inside and outside the government, had indicated in the past week that opposition to the continued talks being voiced by a concerted right-wing campaign had triggered a delicate internal debate in the government about the holding of the next round of talks. At the La Palma meeting, the round of talks was scheduled to be held in the last two weeks in November.
Though Duarte insisted on terming the alleged rightist lobbying in the Army "rumors," he admitted when pressed that he took them seriously.
Duarte denied, however, that his decision not to attend the next round of talks and to have them limited to procedural matters had anything to do with the right-wing campaign against the "dialogue."
After the first meeting with the rebels at La Palma, rightists such as former Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, the extremist leader of the National Republican Alliance (Arena), criticized Duarte for attending the meeting in person and thus giving the rebels a prestige and propaganda victory that they did not merit.
Duarte said the future agenda for talks with the rebels hinged on their response to his original proposal that they stop attempting to gain power by military means and try instead to incorporate themselves into the democratic life of the country by entering next March's national elections.