Colombia government pursues talks with FARC rebels

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Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos announced Monday that his government had started a new round of peace talks with FARC rebels. (Photo by John Vizcaino/Reuters.)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday that talks between his government and leaders of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, are underway.

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Santos called them "exploratory talks to end the conflict" but refused to say more in his televised speech. Former vice president Francisco Santos — the president's cousin — told RCN radio that the two sides would begin formal peace negotiations in October in Havana, Cuba.

The scheduled talks are the first of their kind since 2002, when the government withdrew troops from a huge swath of southern Colombia to convince the FARC to negotiate. The move didn't work. Instead of negotiating, the rebels used the demilitarized zone to launch attacks and stash kidnapping victims.

After three years and no progress, the government pulled the plug on peace talks.

The guerrillas were far stronger a decade ago. So much so that some feared they would march triumphantly into the Colombian capital of Bogota. But a recent military offensive has cut the rebels’ troop strength in half. They now seem more willing to make a deal.

Fabian Ramirez, a top FARC commander, recently told a British TV reporter that it’s time to end the war.

Colombian lawmakers helped pave the way for peace talks in May by passing a constitutional amendment. The new provision would pardon guerrillas for many of their crimes and allow them to participate in politics if they disarm.

Mauricio Rodriguez, Colombia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, told the BBC that the government and FARC envoys may also discuss issues like land reform.

"I would say, in general, some social reforms and the guarantee of political space for the guerrillas to abandon their arms and engage in politics," he said.

Colombians are divided over whether the government should sit down with the rebels. The FARC started out as a band of peasants seeking land reform and social equality. Today, the group is widely considered a terrorist group that funds its war through drug trafficking and extortion.

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe maintains FARC fighters should either be confronted on the battlefield or imprisoned. Uribe said in a speech Monday President Santos was making a serious mistake.

"The only thing that should be discussed with terrorists is the process of turning themselves in to face justice," Uribe said. "This government has abandoned the people in order to negotiate with terrorists."

But the FARC is nowhere near defeated. The rebel army still has about 9,000 fighters. They've recently increased their attacks on government troops, oil pipelines and electric towers. 

Terrorism acts were up 53 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2011, according to the defense ministry. On Sunday, suspected FARC rebels set off a car bomb that killed six civilians.

The war could drag on for years. That's why Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre wants to help FARC leaders make the transition to legal politics through peace talks.

"I would prefer to have them serving in Congress rather than kidnapping people and sowing violence across Colombia," he said.

If negotiations with the FARC go well, the country's second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, says it too would like to join negotiations with the government.

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