BOGOTA Colombia's attempt to bring an end to five decades of war with Marxist FARC rebels faces "enemies," President Juan Manuel Santos said on Monday, calling for unity to support the process and assure its success in the next several months.
In a televised address on the eve of an organized march against violence, Santos expressed optimism that the nation is close to achieving a historic agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and an end to bloodshed, but he slammed those who are poisoning the effort and spreading lies.
"While some remain trapped in the past, clinging to a vision of Colombia condemned to violence, of a Colombia frozen with fear and polarization, we, the immense majority of Colombians believe in our future," said Santos of the peace negotiations taking place in Havana, Cuba.
Without naming his former boss, Santos alluded to ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who has been against the negotiations since their announcement in September. Uribe has used his Twitter account to drum up support for his efforts against Santos, once his defence minister.
"To the enemies of peace I say: in place of poisoning the process, in place of spreading lies - like saying there would be peace with impunity when we haven't even discussed the issue - be prudent."
Thousands are expected to march in Bogota on Tuesday to demand an end to violence and in solidarity with victims of the conflict. The gathering is being held 65 years after the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, whose murder unleashed a wave of violence that continues today.
Latin America's longest-running insurgency has left tens of thousands dead, seeded vast rural and mountainous areas with landmines and left scores of villages and towns economically isolated.
While a 10-year military offensive against the FARC has pushed the rebels deep into inhospitable territory and helped rejuvenate the economy, the FARC is still a formidable presence and able to sow fear and cause damage to the nation's economic infrastructure.
The FARC is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe.
The president also expressed hope there would "sooner rather than later" be a similar peace process with the second-biggest rebel group, the National Liberation Army.
Santos, who has faced a barrage of criticism in recent months for failing to provide sufficient details on what is being discussed in Havana, said he understood the nation's scepticism and asked for patience while the two sides agreed on terms. Any accord would need to go to a referendum, he said.
"It's normal that Colombians would be sceptical after so many deceptions. But the truth is the process is going well."
"It's a difficult and complex process," he said, adding that peace could come in months if the current pace of talks is maintained.
Numerous peace efforts in Colombia since the 1980s have brought mixed success, with some smaller armed groups demobilizing. But the FARC, Latin America's biggest rebel group, has pressed on, funded in large part by drug trafficking.
At the last peace talks in 1999-2002, former President Andres Pastrana ceded the FARC a safe haven the size of Switzerland to promote talks.
But 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.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)