OSLO/HURDAL: Colombia’s government and leftist FARC rebels Thursday formally launched peace talks in Norway aimed at ending nearly five decades of a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Norway, followed by Cuba, is hosting the first direct talks between the two sides in 10 years.
The Colombian government and the rebels officially began the negotiations in a hotel in Hurdal, a small town north of Oslo, with the heads of the delegations, Humberto de la Calle for Bogota and Ivan Marquez for the rebels, appearing on the same podium but without shaking hands.
“We come with an olive branch in our hands,” Marquez said. De la Calle meanwhile expressed “moderate optimism” about reaching a peace deal after three earlier attempts failed.
“We hope that there will be good results for the Colombian people. This is a moment of hope,” he said, noting there were “substantial differences to [peace] processes in the past.”
He cited social changes in Colombia, less poverty, and the fact that Bogota has this time ruled out a cease-fire with rebels until a final peace agreement is in place.
“There will be no halting of military operations,” De la Calle reiterated, urging FARC to “fight for their ideals but within the democratic framework.”
However, negotiator Ricardo Tellez said at a news conference later in the day that FARC guerillas are willing to discuss a cease-fire deal at any point during their peace talks with the government.
“I’m sure they need a few more dead, a few more mutilated,” Tellez said. “We believe the country needs no more, at any point we are willing to consider this.”
The Norway round of talks was aimed at hashing out technical details and logistics for the peace process’ five-point plan.
The two sides will hold preparatory meetings in Cuba from Nov. 5 and the talks will resume in earnest on the Caribbean island on Nov. 15, they said Thursday. That is when in-depth negotiations will start with the thorny issue of rural development. Colombia has wide income disparities, with much of the country’s rural areas lacking basic services and infrastructure.
The Cuba round of talks will also address the issue of land distribution. Colombia’s countryside is full of large plots mostly owned by the wealthy and little land is available to small farmers who want their own plots.
Land reform was at the heart of a peasant uprising in the 1960s that saw the formation of FARC, and access to farmland remains an important issue in a country where half the population lives in poverty.
“The problem of land is a historical cause of conflict,” Marquez said, adding that the initial “cause of armed rebellion has become worse.”
“The landowners have created unjust structures of land ownership,” he charged.
The four other main points on the peace agenda are: the rebels’ future role in political life, a definitive end to hostilities, fighting the illegal drug trade and the situation of victims.
Marquez qualified the peace talks as “a very volatile process,” adding: “This strategic job is not something that should be subjected to time pressure.”
The two sides had met at a secret location Wednesday and earlier Thursday to discuss technical and logistical issues and a Colombian official told AFP the meetings had been “respectful and cordial.”
The Colombian government estimates that some 600,000 people have been killed by armed groups and security forces in the country, and that 3.7 million Colombians have been displaced in the conflict.
Latin America’s largest rebel group, founded in 1964 and with 9,200 armed fighters now, FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – may be ready for a truce after a long string of setbacks.
In recent years, it has suffered the capture or killing of some of its top leaders, and the depletion of its ranks to half what they were at their peak in the 1990s.
The United States, a long-time ally of the Colombian government in its fight against the drug trafficking that is a major source of funding for the rebels, Wednesday voiced “full support” for the peace process.
The Americans are not involved but are being updated regularly, said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.
FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said Wednesday he was “concerned” about the talks, saying he didn’t understand why a country would “negotiate with terrorists.”