By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - A government peace accord with Marxist FARC rebels may help solve the mystery behind tens of thousands of Colombians who disappeared during 50 years of war, a Red Cross official said on Wednesday.
Negotiations between the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the government are in their 17th month in Cuba. The two sides are working through a five-point agenda that would allow the guerrillas to demobilize and enter politics.
More than 20,000 people are known to have disappeared after being violently taken from their homes by rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or armed forces, according to government estimates.
The International Committee of the Red Cross finds or identifies about three missing people every few months, said Jordi Raich, the head of its Colombia delegation.
"I'm confident that in a post-conflict scenario where there's an information-sharing agreement we could find many more," Raich said in an interview, referring to a possible accord between the rebels and the government that could reveal the location of human remains.
The conflict, which has left more than 200,000 dead and displaced millions, began in 1964. Thousands of innocent people were killed and tossed in mass graves around the country.
"There could be those who know where people are buried, where there are certain bodies that can be looked for and identified," Rauch said at his office in Bogota.
The FARC peace talks have become a political hot potato ahead of May 25 presidential elections.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who launched the talks in 2012, has staked his legacy on bringing peace to Colombia. One of his key rivals, right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, has said he would scrap talks and end the war on the battlefield.
In 2013, the ICRC worked with 61 Colombian families missing loved ones. Twenty-four people were found alive, while nine sets of remains were identified and returned to families.
An end to the war could also encourage people who have never reported disappearances to come forward, he said.
"Often disappearances are accompanied by threats. It's impossible to quantify the number of unreported cases," said Raich, a Spaniard who has headed the Colombian delegation for almost three years.
Peace with the FARC will herald a shift in overall focus for the ICRC - away from immediate humanitarian crises like attacks and the displacement of rural populations - toward solving disappearance cases and clearing away landmines.
"This is a period of transition, we're beginning to prepare for possible areas which will need more efforts, and others which will need less," said Raich.
The ICRC, which operates 12 offices throughout Colombia and is often involved in hostage liberations, is speaking to both sides in the negotiations.
"Never has Colombia come so far on a peace accord, in terms of reaching partial agreements on very complex, very old, issues. We're talking about a half-century long conflict," said Raich, who declined to give details on his organization's discussions with the two sides.
"I'm optimistic that there will be an accord ... This is a historic opportunity."
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Steve Orlofsky)