Guns fall silent in Guatemala truce

One of the modern world's longest guerrilla wars, the 35-year-old Guatemalan insurgency, could soon be over after the government and left-wing rebels separately declared an open-ended truce.

In a goodwill gesture ahead of peace talks next week, the guerrillas of the National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala group said they would "temporarily suspend all offensive military operations" and fight only if attacked by the army. It was the first time they had declared an indefinite ceasefire, rather than one pegged to a specific event such as the recent presidential elections or last month's visit by the Pope.

President Alvaro Arzu, who took office in January, immediately responded by ordering the army to hold its fire. He was travelling to the Ixcan highland region yesterday, one of the zones of most intense fighting in past years, to ensure the troops got the message andcomplied.

The ceasefire appeared to reflect a new trust between government and rebels since Mr Arzu, a 50-year-old former travel agent of part-Russian extraction, took office. He has pledged to end the conflict by the summer.

The Guatemalan conflict, initially a civil war pitting poverty-stricken Mayan Indians against a ruthless army and a wealthy elite, is the last remaining guerrilla insurgency of many which have plagued Central America. An estimated 100,000 Guatemalans are known to have been killed while a further 40,000 "disappeared".

Most of the deaths and disappearances were blamed on the army which largely crushed the rebels in the early Eighties with a "scorched-earth" policy of burning down entire Indian villages to flush out the rebels and discourage their supporters.

Since the Generals stood down, and democracy was restored in 1986, the conflict has been little more than a nuisance to most Guatemalans, with rebels blocking highways and blowing up electricity pylons. But it has retained symbolic importance for the poor, indigenous population in whose name the rebels fought.

While rarely taking on the army in recent years, the guerrillas have maintained political influence in remote areas, financing themselves with millions of dollars in "war tax" extorted from ranchers and other sources. Some Guatemalans fear that, even after a peace agreement, some rebels may continue to rule the roost in highland areas, living off the proceeds of extortion.