By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Marxist FARC rebel leaders should be in a Colombian prison rather than negotiating peace with the government in Cuba, and no "terrorist" should ever be allowed into politics, opposition presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga said on Friday.
The aspirant for Colombia's May 2014 presidential race is gearing up his campaign with a string of attacks on President Juan Manuel Santos' effort to end 50 years of civil war, including this week's accord to let the rebels enter politics.
"The negotiators in Havana should be in jail paying for all their atrocious crimes, crimes against humanity that they have committed in Colombia," Zuluaga, 54, candidate for former President Alvaro Uribe's new party, told Reuters.
"They can't be awarded with political positions or seats in congress ... With terrorism, the only thing we can discuss is submission, and if the FARC wants peace it should stop all criminal activity against our citizens."
Some three dozen commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are in Cuba negotiating an end to the conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964. While Colombians are desperate for peace, they are split over the FARC's civilian future.
Frustrated by increased rebel attacks, a sluggish economy and Colombia's surprising friendship with socialist neighbor Venezuela, Zuluaga, a one-time ally of President Juan Manuel Santos, is now his main rival assuming the incumbent seeks a second term. He has been traveling constantly the last year around the nation seeking support.
Santos, who has until November 25 to decide on that, has seen his approval ratings slide in recent months after a series of labor protests turned violent, the FARC stepped up attacks and the peace process dragged on for a year with little progress.
The center-right president has suffered constant snipes from Zuluaga and Uribe - his former boss and ally - that the rebels are gaining the upper hand after years of setbacks.
This week, the government reached an accord with the FARC on their potential political future if a full peace deal is signed. Full details of the agreement have not been revealed.
"I cannot accept that a legitimate state sits and talks to an organization that is financed by drug trafficking, financed by terrorism, acts like a criminal organization every day and attacks Colombians - and the state negotiates as equals? It's not acceptable," said a fiery-sounding Zuluaga in the gardens outside his Bogota apartment.
A former senator and provincial mayor, Zuluaga charges that FARC negotiations have damaged the $360 billion economy. He is sure he can boost growth, attract more foreign investment and turn still-strong support for Uribe into a sound win over Santos.
Zuluaga sees economic expansion this year around 3.5 percent - below the 6 percent annual growth he reckons he could achieve as president - and less than Peru and Chile's respective 5.7 and 4.5 percent growth forecasts.
"Why is Colombia growing less than Peru and Chile? I just don't understand," he said.
As finance minister from 2007 to 2010, Zuluaga steered the economy through a period of record growth and then through a slowdown at the end of 2008 during the global financial crisis.
The rebels have stepped up attacks on targets like oil and mining facilities this year, causing financial difficulties for companies in Latin America's fifth-largest economy.
"Talks with the FARC have taken a lot of the wind out of the economy and investment. Risk has increased over what will happen, what will be handed to the FARC, and that's undoubtedly affected confidence," said Zuluaga, who graduated with a master's degree in public finance from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.
Zuluaga, whose family manages one of Colombia's largest steelmakers, launched his presidential bid last month after being picked by backers of Uribe's Centro Democratico party.
Uribe supported Santos in the 2010 presidential election after he pledged to continue Uribe's strong security policies. The two have since fallen out, with Uribe accusing him of betrayal by launching talks with the FARC.
While Zuluaga's chances of beating Santos are seen as slim right now, a year of traveling around Colombia is sure to have drummed up support and helped him hone some of the people skills his political mentor employed as president.
A serious and guarded politician, he would need to lift his approval ratings significantly to go up against the presidential machine should Santos decide to run. Last month's poll by Gallup gave Zuluaga 17 percent favorability against 29 percent for Santos.
But already scores of Santos backers have shifted to Uribe's party as they fret Santos is squandering the former president's legacy. "Eight out of 10 Colombians don't want Santos to be re-elected," he said.
Zuluaga did not rule out peace talks of his own with the FARC, but only if they first stop all "criminal activity" and served jail terms for their crimes.
He slammed the prospect of FARC leaders being allowed to enter politics if peace is signed and said that the only place they would go in a Zuluaga presidency would be prison.
Rebel foot-soldiers or those proven to have remained clean of any human rights abuses could, however, be considered for access into the political system, Zuluaga said.
(Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Philip Barbara)