Colombia, FARC peace talks off to good start: rebel

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 20, 2012 11:26 AM

By Rosa Tania Valdés and Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - Peace negotiations between Colombia and Marxist guerrillas are off to a good start in Cuba, a rebel negotiator said on Tuesday, after delays and rocky moments in the weeks before talks began to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

Tempered by a history of failure, Colombia's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, started discussions on Monday with rebels calling a unilateral truce, boosting hopes for an end after nearly 50 years of fighting.

Rebel negotiator Jesus Santrich, wearing a gray jacket and dark neck scarf, told reporters outside a Havana convention center that the first session on Monday went smoothly.

"We're moving ahead at a good pace, on the right track and trying to make sure of the full participation of the public," he said in brief comments before entering the second day of talks.

Santrich, who is part of the FARC's political wing, spoke from a podium with microphones in a change of plans for the negotiators to stay mostly mum and out of sight of the media.

The government negotiators, led by former vice president Humberto de la Calle, made no comment upon their arrival.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is betting a decade of U.S.-backed blows against the FARC has left the group sufficiently weakened to seriously seek an end to the war.

This is the third try at peace with the drug-funded rebels since they formed back in 1964. Past discussions ended in shambles, even strengthening the guerrillas' ability to attack civilian and military targets.

In a sign welcomed by war-weary Colombians and politicians alike, the guerrilla group called a two-month unilateral ceasefire on Monday, the first truce in more than a decade.

But the government reiterated its position that it would not halt military operations until a final peace deal is signed and expressed doubt the FARC was serious about its ceasefire pledge.

The negotiations have begun with the complex issue of rural development, with four equally thorny topics - ending the war, the political and legal future of the rebels, the drug trade and compensation for war victims - still to come.

The agenda is aimed at addressing some of the group's long-held concerns, but also finding redress for the tens of thousands of lives lost and millions of people displaced in the conflict.

De la Calle said on Sunday in Bogota that the first session was expected to last about 10 days before taking a break, with the date for the next round still to be decided.

Santos has said he wants an agreement within nine months, but the rebels say the process could take much longer because of the many complicated issues to be settled.

(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Bill Trott)