Colombia moved closer to civil war last night after President Andres Pastrana rejected a late attempt by left-wing guerrillas to salvage peace talks.
Thousands of tanks and soldiers were poised to move into a demilitarised area controlled by the rebels. President Pastrana gave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) until tonight either to give a "clear and direct response" to government demands or leave the zone.
The Farc responded with a communiqué that buried any chance of a deal. Simon Trini-dad, a Farc commander, said: "The ultimatum ... handed down by the President changes everything we have agreed upon in the past three years and thus closes all possibilities for the current process."
Dozens of kidnapping victims and 47 police and military hostages are thought to be inside the zone, which is twice the size of Wales. About 3,500 people, mainly civilians, die in the conflict each year and many are now preparing to leave.
Mr Pastrana offered the safe haven to the rebels three years ago but he now insists that the demilitarised area is no longer necessary since the guerrillas suspended talks three months ago in protest against stepped-up military controls on the area's periphery.
The 18,000-strong rebel army submitted a rambling proposal on Saturday night to create commissions to look at security but the President rejected it out of hand.
Mr Pastrana said in a televised address: "What the country is waiting for is a clear and direct response ... [as to] whether the Farc consider that the guarantees exist to continue negotiations. Only a public manifestation along these lines will stop the clock."