Colombian rebels call for peace talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2012 10:54 AM
Colombian rebels call for peace talks

By Jack Kimball

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebel leader has called for negotiations with President Juan Manuel Santos' government to end nearly five decades of war.

Latin America's fourth-largest oil producer has battled leftist rebels and drug gangs for decades and nearly every government since the 1980s has tried peace talks with a myriad of armed groups to varying degrees of success.

"We would be interested in a hypothetical negotiating table," Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) chief Timoleon Jimenez, or "Timochenko," said in a letter published late on Monday on the Marxist group's website http://www.farc-ep.co/.

Timochenko did not explain what "hypothetical" meant in the latest of periodic overtures for peace talks from FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group. Analysts said the letter was not likely to lead to a negotiated end to the conflict.

In the rambling note, which included references to the Bible, Greek myths and U.S. writer Jack London, the rebel leader said the FARC wanted to address issues of privatization, deregulation, trade, investment, environmental degradation and military doctrine as part of the proposed peace talks.

Timochenko called on Santos - who was finance minister during the failed 1999-2002 El Caguan peace process where Colombia created a demilitarized zone (DMZ) for rebels - to take up the agenda from those talks.

"El Caguan has become a byword for failure and though Timochenko makes no demand for a new DMZ, its very mention sets low expectations, both in government and amongst a public keen to see a negotiated solution to the decades-old internal conflict," said UK-based newsletter LatinNews.

The FARC letter, titled "No Lies, Santos, No Lies," criticized the government on its policies for the oil and coal sector, saying it benefited foreign investors over Colombians.

Timochenko took over the FARC late last year after Colombian security forces killed the previous chief in one of the biggest blows to the rebels since they took up arms in the 1960s.

The guerrillas have been reeling from successive blows against their leadership and forces since a 2002 U.S.-backed security crackdown drove them to ever-remoter jungle and mountain hideouts.

The Andean nation's government says the door to peace is not closed but calls on rebels to give up their arms, release all hostages and stop attacks before peace talks can be considered.

Since coming to power in 2010, Santos' government has pushed through a range of reforms, such as the restitution of land to displaced peasants, that were key demands by rebels in the past.

Negotiations, however, are not likely happen unless Colombia passes a bill in Congress that sets up legal mechanisms for a peace process, experts say.

"We assess a low probability that this letter will lead to a negotiated end at least in the short term," said Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos in a note.

"The FARC letter is quite confrontational rather than conciliatory as it is very critical of the government and the current political-economic system."

(Editing by Eric Beech)