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An end to war? Colombian government seeks peace with FARC rebels

Fernando Vergara / AP

During a televised speech on Monday, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos says that his government had held exploratory talks with rebels of the the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's government is seeking peace with the country's biggest rebel group, the FARC, and could consider also holding talks with a second guerrilla movement to end five decades of war, the country's president said on Monday. 

"(W)e have had exploratory conversations with the FARC to seek an end to the conflict," President Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised address from the presidential palace, confirming weeks of swirling rumors that his government had started behind-the-scenes discussions.


A successful peace agreement with the rebels would secure Santos a place in history as the leader who ended a conflict that has killed tens of thousands over the years and left the Andean nation's reputation in tatters. 

Santos also said his government would learn from the mistakes of so many previous leaders who tried but failed to clinch a lasting cease-fire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. 

He said that the military would continue its operations "throughout every centimeter" of Colombia while talks continued. Santos did not provide further details, but said he would reveal more about the talks in the coming days. 

The president has said he would consider peace talks with the FARC only if he was certain the drug-funded group would negotiate in good faith. The last peace effort ended in shambles. 

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In response to a Reuters interview published on Monday with the head of the nation's second biggest rebel group, Santos said the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, could also be involved in the peace talks. 

"Today the ELN has expressed, via an international news agency, its interest in participating in conversations to put an end to the violence," the president said in his brief speech. 

"I tell that group that, within the same framework, they too can be part of the effort to end the conflict." 

'People's army'?
The FARC, which calls itself "the people's army" defending peasant rights, has battled about a dozen governments since appearing in 1964, when its founder, Manuel Marulanda, and 48 rebels fought off thousands of troops in jungle hide-outs. 

The group has faced its biggest setbacks in recent years as U.S.-trained special forces use sophisticated technology and spy networks to track the leaders. 

Jaime Saldarriaga / Reuters, file

A member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) runs during a battle with the Colombian army in the mountains of Jambalo, in the province of Cauca, on July 12. Cauca province -- known colloquially to soldiers as Cauca-kistan for the intensity of combat there -- has been one of the hottest regions of the conflict and it is a strategic area for the production and transport of cocaine.

A string of defeats began in 2008 with a cross-border military raid into Ecuador that killed its second in command. Marulanda died of a heart attack weeks later and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, who was later killed too. 

But there has been a recent uptick in violence. Attacks on oil industry installations have jumped 40 percent over the last year, while violent clashes between troops and indigenous protesters led to withering criticism of Santos for not protecting the soldiers. 

Six people were killed, including two children, in a FARC bomb attack in central Meta province on Sunday.

Political future for rebels?
Details of the talks are still being worked out, the source said, but the negotiations could take place in Cuba or Norway. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement, the Reuters source said. 

According to Colombian newspaper El Espectador, among the central issues going into the talks will be whether the FARC will be granted a political role, whether lands lost during the fighting will be returned to farmers, whether the rebels will lay down their arms, and whether rebel leaders will be subject to extradition.

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In 1988 former President Andres Pastrana ceded the FARC a safe haven the size of Switzerland to promote talks. The rebels took advantage of the breathing space to train fighters, build more than 25 airstrips to fly drug shipments, and set up prison camps to hold its hostages. 

A Colombian intelligence source told Reuters earlier that as part of the deal to hold talks, Santos had agreed FARC rebels would not be extradited to any other country to stand trial. 

(Link to Spanish-language article in El Espectador)

Colombia's congress passed a constitutional reform in June that set the legal basis for eventual peace with the rebels. The reform prohibits guerrilla leaders accused of crimes against humanity from holding political office. 

Guarded hope
News of the latest peace effort was met with guarded hope among Colombians. 

"Honestly, full peace is probably never possible. Of course it would be good ... but really, an end to the war? I think an end to the world will happen first," said Maria Eugenia Martinez as she sold cigarettes in an upscale Bogota neighborhood. 

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Santos discussed the peace process during talks in Havana with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro before the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia earlier this year, the intelligence source said. 

In a recent interview with Reuters, Santos said he would only start a peace process "with a high probability of success. I would not start a process to fail." 

News of the talks had already angered Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who has slammed Santos for wanting "peace at any cost" and allowing the rebels to rearm and regroup. 

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Santos, a former defense minister, won election in 2010 by a landslide, pledging to cut unemployment and continue Uribe's hard line security policies, while fostering economic growth and reducing poverty. 

While much of the world struggles to shore up fiscal accounts, Colombia's financial management, buoyant economy and security advances have helped shield its economy from too much fallout from the international financial crisis. 

Once an outcast for most foreign companies, the Andean nation has become a magnet for investment as a U.S.-backed offensive against the FARC sharply reduced the number of kidnappings and murders. The nation was rewarded last year with an investment grade from three major credit-rating agencies. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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