BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he wants the U.S. to suspend drug warrants against guerrilla commanders and remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia from a list of terrorist groups to help cinch a peace deal with Latin America's oldest leftist insurgency.
Santos' remarks in an interview with The Associated Press come days before he travels to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to celebrate 15 years and more than $10 billion in U.S. counterinsurgency and anti-narcotic aid to its closest South American ally.
The high-profile meeting underscores Colombia's historic moment: three-year-old peace talks between the Santos government and the FARC guerrillas are nearing conclusion, with a final deal to end a half-century of bloodshed expected as early as March.
Santos said that when the deal is inked, it would be appropriate for the Obama administration to remove the FARC from a list it's been on for almost two decades alongside such groups as al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
"If they sign it's because we have a timetable for their disarmament and they have committed themselves to lay down their arms and make this transition to legal life. So I would say yes, I hope that they would be eliminated from the terror list," Santos said in the interview Thursday at the presidential palace.
When pressed about how soon after the accord is inked should the FARC be removed from the U.S. list, Santos said the "the shorter the better." A Colombian paramilitary umbrella group had to wait six years after it completely disarmed to be removed.
In the same vein, he said he would like to see the U.S. follow his lead in Colombia and suspend arrest warrants against the FARC's top leadership. U.S. prosecutors in a 2006 indictment accused 50 FARC leaders of supplying half of the world's cocaine, claims that Santos said were exaggerated and in any case out of sync with commitments made at the negotiating table to abandon its involvement in the drug trade and help the government jointly eradicate cocaine crops.
"Any effort by the United States to allow us to apply transitional justice, for example by suspending the arrest warrants, would help us tremendously," he said. "But let's be very clear: if they don't behave, they'll be extradited."
U.S. officials have long insisted that only prosecutors can suspend the warrants.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr declined to comment on Santos' statements.
Santos, a former defense and finance minister and the scion of the family that founded Colombia's largest newspaper, described Colombia's evolution from near failed state when Plan Colombia began under President Bill Clinton to one of world's fastest growing emerging markets last year with a level of conflict-related violence unseen for decades.
As the country has stabilized, U.S. aid has steadily declined from almost $1 billion a year to about a third of that now. He said with a peace deal, demands on spending will surge as Colombia attempts to build roads, schools and extend the state's reach to what he described as nearly half of the country that has traditionally been forsaken and unproductive economically.
He said he hopes U.S. aid to Colombia, which traditionally has had the support of both Republicans and Democrats, can rise again and plans to discuss future funding with Obama.
"I don't have a magic figure, to tell you this is going to cost x or y, but what we hope is that the United States understands that the peace process is like the cherry on the cake," said Santos, who plans to meet with Republican leaders in Congress while in Washington.
"Colombia is at a tipping point," he said. "If we receive the help that we need, because we are in a difficult situation financially as is all of Latin America, we can take advantage of this new situation."
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