BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said he knows “more or less” where the Marxist FARC’s leader is hiding but would think twice about attacking at this stage of peace talks with the rebel group, a change in tone from an earlier goal of capturing or killing him.
Santos, who is seeking re-election in May, said he has taken the “difficult” decision to kill leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia before, but would consider the progress being made in peace negotiations before killing Rodrigo Londono.
“We know more or less where he is,” Santos said in an interview with local radio LaFM. “I’m not going to say I would take the decision or not take it, but I think that at this stage of the process I’d think twice.”
Londono, known by his war alias as Timochenko, is the chief of the FARC’s seven-member secretariat. Intelligence sources have said he is hiding in Venezuela.
Santos’ stance against Londono appears to have softened 16 months into ongoing peace talks in Havana.
The centre-right Santos has bet his political legacy on bringing peace to the Andean nation and said that the FARC has little choice but to turn in their weapons and end a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.
More than three dozen FARC commanders are in Cuba working through a five-point agenda with the government that would let the two sides declare peace. Two points have been agreed so far.
Santos took the decision back in 2011, while secret exploratory talks with the FARC were being carried out, to kill Londono’s predecessor Alfonso Cano.
“I had to take a really hard decision,” said Santos, a Harvard-educated economist and journalist. “If it is presented again, well, I will see what decision I take at that moment.”
Santos has faced a barrage of criticism from his predecessor and former ally Alvaro Uribe over the talks and a perception that the rebels are manipulating the government to gain political benefits.
Uribe’s barbs have intensified since he became the official opposition and put his own candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, in the presidential race.
The 62-year old Santos remains the front runner in polls ahead of the election on May 25. He is expected to go into a second round of voting in June with Zuluaga or former Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa.
Santos said that peace would bolster economic growth, helping his campaign pledge to continue to cut the jobless rate and reduce poverty.
The FARC, which has battled a dozen governments, took up arms in 1964 as a Marxist group struggling against inequality. It later turned to kidnapping and drug-trafficking to finance itself. Colombia is a leading producer of cocaine.
Even as the group has been weakened by a decade-long U.S.-backed military offensive, a rash of attacks against oil and mining installations, as well as on the armed forces, prove it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Reporting by Helen Murphy; editing by Andrew Hay