Colombia, FARC rebels seek to end long conflict

HAVANA Mon Nov 19, 2012 8:38am GMT

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia and the Marxist FARC rebels will sit down in Havana on Monday for their first peace talks in 10 years in the latest attempt to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

The conflict has dragged on for nearly half a century, taken tens of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people and proven intractable in three previous peace processes.

But both the Colombian government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have expressed optimism that this time might be different.

Government and FARC negotiators will meet in Havana's main convention centre in a part of town called Cubanacan, which is lined with palatial homes that once belonged to the elite, virtually all of whom fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution. It is now home mostly to foreign diplomats.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos wants an agreement within nine months, but the two sides face plenty of thorny issues in their five-point agenda. It will begin with rural development, then move on to include such topics as the political and legal future of the rebels, a definitive end to the conflict, the problem of drug trafficking and compensation for war victims.

"We hope, as also hope the majority of Colombians, that the FARC shows that they think this is the moment for the force of ideas and not the force of bullets," lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said as he left Bogota for Havana on Sunday.

The conflict dates back to 1964 when the FARC was formed as a communist agrarian movement intent on overturning Colombia's long history of social inequality.

The group has been weakened by a U.S.-backed military offensive begun in 2002 that reduced its numbers to about 8,000 and forced them into remote mountain and jungle strongholds.

But the rebels still have the strength to launch attacks that Santos wants ended so the country can grow its economy, which has been boosted in recent years by oil and mining operations, much of it in areas where the FARC has a strong presence.

The FARC has sustained itself by cocaine trafficking, kidnapping, ransom and "war taxes" in territory it controls.

Its leaders deny involvement in the drug trade and renounced kidnappings earlier this year, but the United States and European Union consider the group a terrorist organization.

Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC's secretariat, will lead a delegation of about 30 people at the talks, which were formally begun last month in Norway.

Norway is a guarantor of the process, along with Cuba.

Officials want the talks held in the strictest possible secrecy, which is likely the reason they are in Cuba, where the government is expert at keeping information close to the vest and the press at bay.

Venezuela and Chile also will have representatives at the talks.

(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota.; Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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