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Colombian president announces rebel peace talks

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Tuesday a preliminary accord with Colombia’s main leftist rebel group to launch talks aimed at ending a stubborn, century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

In a nationally televised speech, Santos called the agreement a roadmap to “a definitive peace” and said it was reached after six months of direct talks in Cuba, with that country’s government and Norway serving as brokers following a year and a half of preparatory work.

The agreement does not include a cease-fire. Nor does it grant a safe haven to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as occurred during the last peace talks, which lasted three years and ended disastrously in 2002.

The talks to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict will begin in the first half of October in Oslo, Norway, and continue in Havana, Santos said.

FARC leaders held a news conference later Tuesday in Havana.

Santos said the talks, the fourth with the peasant-based FARC in three decades, would be different from past talks because they have “a realistic agenda” that includes the FARC agreeing to eventually lay down its arms and become integrated into the country’s political life.

Other Colombian rebel movements, most notably M-19 in 1990, have done that successfully.

Santos, a social progressive who dealt the FARC major blows as defense minister from 2006-2009, said key topics would be agrarian reform, returning stolen land, reducing poverty and compensating victims.

Santos said one major point on the agenda was drug trafficking, highly sensitive because it is believed to be the FARC’s main funding source.

The FARC, classified as an international terror organization by the U.S. State Department, is only one of various illegal armed groups in Colombia funded by the drug trade.

They include remnants of far-right militias known as paramilitaries that were created to fight the FARC in the 1980s and became private armies for drug traffickers and wealth landholders. The paramilitaries made peace with Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who opposes peace talks with the FARC.

Santos said the talks would not be open-ended.

“They will be measured in months, not in years,” he said. He did not, however, set a deadline. Nor did he say when the accord was signed.

Santos is mindful of Colombia’s strongly conservative bent, and was firm about what he called the government’s insistence on not ceding an inch of territory.

“If there are not advances, we simply won’t continue,” he said, adding that “military operations will continue with the same or stepped up intensity.”

Santos also did not mention a major potential obstacle to peace: amnesty for rebel leaders. A law his government sponsored that was passed in June sets a framework for amnesties and pardons for rebel and military leaders.



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