By Rosa Tania Valdés
HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas announced on Thursday that they would stop recruiting soldiers under 17 years old, the latest in a number of conciliatory steps as peace talks to end five decades of conflict with the government advance.
The group said it was raising the minimum age for recruits from 15 to 17 in a statement marking the end of the latest round of talks with the government. The two-year-old negotiations are taking place in Cuba's capital, Havana.
Colombia's government welcomed the move but said it did not go far enough, citing international human rights law that sets the minimum age for participation in any kind of combat at 18.
"First, I don't understand why 17 years of age? The established norm is 18, and I don't understand why they've only gone halfway," President Juan Manuel Santos said in a speech in Colombia's Caqueta province to inaugurate an electrification project/
"Colombians would have received it with greater joy, if they said they would not only stop recruiting children under 18 but that they would free those they have recruited. ... We will continue to insist upon that step," he said.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has long been accused of forcibly recruiting minors or taking on underage volunteers in remote rural areas with few opportunities.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said on Thursday that half of the FARC members who have been demobilizing from the rebel force are under 18 or were when they joined. They usually perform tasks such as cooking or clearing jungle paths while training as combatants.
The FARC's ranks have been roughly halved to around 8,000 by a U.S.-backed military offensive that has run for more than a decade and pushed the group, and its smaller counterpart, the National Liberation Army (ELN), deeper into their jungle hideouts.
The FARC initiated a unilateral ceasefire shortly before Christmas as both sides seek to de-escalate.
The FARC and the government are negotiating a five-point agenda for peace.
Partial agreement has been reached on three of the agenda items: land reform, ending the illegal drug trade and political participation for the guerrillas. The remaining issues are disarmament and demobilization, and reparations for victims of the war, which has killed around 220,000 people.
(Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)