WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday expressed support for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's attempts to reach a peace agreement with Marxist FARC rebels.
Obama congratulated Santos on "bold and brave efforts" to bring about peace in Colombia through negotiations with FARC. Meeting in Havana this week, government mediators are working through an agenda with rebel leaders, seeking to stop bloodshed that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.
"This has been a longstanding conflict within Colombia. It is not easy," the U.S. president said. "There are many challenges ahead, but the fact that he has taken this step is the right thing because it sends the right signal to the people of Colombia."
Santos thanked the United States for its backing during talks with the rebels.
"It is my hope that this is a conflict that will come to an end," he said. "We have been shedding blood for over 50 years, and the support of the United States and the entire world is decisive in reaching that peace that we all want."
On a lighter note, the two leaders had time to needle one another about a possible clash between their two countries - in a soccer matchup during the World Cup in Brazil this summer.
While Obama noted that the national squads of both countries have qualified for the quadrennial event, Santos, smiling, suggested the U.S. team, ranked 14th in the world, might be outmatched in an encounter with Colombia, ranked number four.
"I certainly hope they won't meet in the first round, but we can maybe eliminate the U.S. team later," he said.
"We'll have to make a wager on that," Obama replied.
The two teams fought to a 0-0 draw in a friendly match in 2010 and Colombia beat the U.S. side 1-0 in 2007 Copa America competition.
(Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Ken Wills)