Pope brings Colombia president, main critic to talk peace

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Posted: Dec 16, 2016 9:35 AM
Pope brings Colombia president, main critic to talk peace

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis brought Colombia's president and his main political opponent together to discuss the country's rebel peace deal Friday, making a remarkable personal intervention to try to seal an accord ending Latin America's longest-running conflict.

But after the 25-minute meeting, neither President Juan Manuel Santos nor his right-wing predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, showed any sign of putting aside their differences, which have divided Colombians and are unlikely to be settled before 2018 presidential elections.

The Vatican distributed a photo of the three men sitting at Francis' desk and said the pope "spoke about the 'culture of encounter' and emphasized the importance of sincere dialogue between all members of Colombian society at this historical moment."

Santos had already been scheduled to meet with Francis on Friday as part of a European tour after picking up this year's Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and the two met as planned.

The Vatican, though, at the last minute also invited Uribe, who had led the campaign against Santos' deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that resulted in in the accord's shock rejection in an October referendum.

Uribe flew overnight from Bogota and met privately with Francis in an unannounced audience. The three men then joined up together in Francis' private study for the three-way huddle.

After the referendum's failure, Santos introduced several changes to appease his critics and even sat down for a meeting with Uribe for the first time in six years. But he still failed to win his former boss' support when the revised accord was ratified this month by congress.

Santos said that during the meeting, he reiterated to Uribe his willingness to maintain an open dialogue with the opposition to ensure the peace deal's effective implementation.

"Polarization doesn't benefit anyone," Santos told journalists following the meeting.

Uribe, meanwhile, was emphatic that his disagreement with Santos isn't personal but based on convictions shared by millions of Colombians who voted against the peace deal in October.

"President Santos presented some arguments ... then I said, 'Holiness, tell him to loosen up a bit,'" Uribe said.

Francis, history's first Latin American pope, has insisted that dialogue is the only way forward. Under his papacy, the Vatican also helped facilitate talks between the U.S. and Cuba that ended a half-century of conflict.

Uribe, the country's most popular politician, said he was attending the meeting out of respect for Francis. He gave no indication that he was ready to drop his argument that the accord promotes impunity by sparing rebel commanders time in jail and instead awarding them seats in congress.

Still, the Vatican has considerable leverage in the staunchly Roman Catholic country, especially among Uribe's conservative base, and the pope has been careful not to appear to be taking sides in the peace process.

The pope has held off traveling to Colombia until the peace process is complete, although Santos has said he expects Francis to visit in early 2017.

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AP writer Joshua Goodman contributed from Bogota, Colombia.