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Colombia-rebel peace talks announced

Colombia's Government commisioner Camilo Gomez, right, Government delegate Juan Camilo Uribe, center, and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia spokesman Simon Trinidad, in Los Pozos, Colombia, on January 20, 2002. (AFP PHOTO / Luis ACOSTA)

BOGOTA, Colombia: Colombia and its main leftist rebel group said Tuesday they have signed an accord to launch peace talks next month aimed at ending a stubborn, century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

In a nationally televised speech, President Juan Manuel Santos called the pact a roadmap to "a definitive peace." It was reached after six months of direct talks in Cuba, with that country's government and Norway serving as brokers following a year and a half of preparatory work.

The agreement, signed Aug. 27, does not include a cease-fire.

It also doesn't grant a safe haven to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as during the last peace talks. Those talks lasted three years and ended disastrously in 2002, when the FARC skyjacked a plane and kidnapped a senator, ending then-President Andres Pastrana's patience. While enjoying the protection of a Switzerland-sized safe haven in southern Colombia, the rebels had continued to wage war and kidnap elsewhere while building up their cocaine business.

The latest talks to end the Western Hemisphere's longest-running conflict, in essence a class struggle distorted by the drug trade and whose principal victims have been civilians, will begin in the first half of October in Oslo, Norway, and continue in Havana, Santos said. Venezuela and Chile will "accompany" the talks, but how their roles will differ from those of Cuba and Norway was not explained.

Shortly after Santos spoke, the rebels held a news conference in Havana and played a video of their 53-year-old commander, Timoleon Jimenez, who acknowledged that the group had felt pressure from Colombia's U.S.-backed military.

The salt-and-pepper-bearded Jimenez, speaking from what appeared to be a jungle setting with a poster of the FARC's late founder Manuel Marulanda behind him, issued an angry tirade against his country's elite, calling them "bloody-toothed vampires" who helped powerful multinationals "sack the country's riches."

He excoriated the government for not ceding territory or accepting a cease-fire but said the rebels agreed to talk peace because the government agreed to discuss issues vital for the rebels including land restitution and rural development.

The FARC has been stepping up hit-and-run attacks in recent months but has also continued to suffer major casualties, especially in air raids by plains fitted with U.S. avionics and targeting systems. On the eve of the announcement, Colombia's defense ministry announced the deaths of at least seven guerrillas in one such raid early Monday.

The FARC was born Marxist in 1964 but its rhetoric is more rooted in its peasant origins: Colombia has one of the world's widest gulfs between rich and poor and the world's second-largest internally displaced population after Sudan.

The FARC numbers about 9,000 fighters, about half its strength a decade ago, when a U.S.-backed military buildup led to record desertions. Since 2008, three members of the FARC's ruling Secretariat have been killed in military raids, including Jimenez's predecessor, Alfonso Cano, who died in November 2011, a little more than a year after Santos took office.

Santos said the latest peace talks, the fourth with the FARC in three decades, are different from past parleys because their "realistic agenda"

includes the FARC agreeing to eventually lay down its arms and enter political life.

Other Colombian rebel movements, most notably the M-19 in 1990, have done that successfully.

Santos, a social progressive who dealt the FARC major blows as defense minister from 2006-2009, said key topics would be agrarian reform, reducing poverty and compensating victims. He said important on the agenda is drug trafficking, sensitive because it is believed to be the FARC's main funding source.

The FARC announced on Feb. 26 that it was halting ransom kidnapping as a funding source. Cuba said in a statement Tuesday that exploratory talks had begun three days before that. The rebel group also released its last "political prisoners," soldiers and police captured in combat.

Classified as an international terror organization by the U.S. State Department, the FARC is one of numerous illegal armed groups in Colombia that lives off the cocaine trade.

The groups include remnants of far-right militias known as paramilitaries that were created to fight the FARC in the 1980s and became private armies for drug traffickers and wealth landholders. The paramilitaries, perpetrators of most land thefts and dirty war killings, made peace with Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who opposes peace talks with the FARC.

Santos said the talks would not be open-ended, but did not set a deadline or say when the accord was signed. "They will be measured in months, not in years," he said.

Santos was also firm about what he called the government's insistence on not ceding an inch of territory. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue," he said, adding that "military operations will continue with the same or stepped up intensity."

Santos did not mention a major potential obstacle to peace: amnesty for rebel leaders. A law his government sponsored that was passed in June sets a framework for amnesties and pardons for rebel and military leaders who have not committed war crimes.

The FARC delegation that appeared in Havana left quickly without speaking to reporters but said it would hold a news conference on Thursday in the Cuban capital.

Cuban leader Raul Castro and his brother are among the only leaders left in Latin America old enough to remember the start of the Colombian insurgency as grownups, and they have long sought to play a leading role in regional affairs.

Santos thanked the Cubans for their role and also the president of neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. FARC leaders have long lived and received medical treatment in Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, in Cuba.

Nonetheless, their presence has been one factor in the U.S. decision to label Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism, a designation that Cuba hotly contests.

 

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