Farc talks offer sees new Colombian president extend olive branch


COLOMBIA’S INCOMING government says it is willing to take up an offer of peace talks made by the country’s biggest rebel group but only after the guerrillas release their hostages and cease attacks on security forces.

The rebel offer came in a video released on Friday in which Alfonso Cano, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, said the group “continues to insist on searching for political exits to the situation”.

Farc, the oldest and largest of Colombia’s two Marxist guerrilla movements, had previously dismissed the victory of Juan Manuel Santos in June’s presidential election as “illegitimate”.

The former defence minister was elected after promising to continue outgoing president Álvaro Uribe’s hard-line stance against the country’s Marxist insurgency, which has seen the military push the guerrillas onto the defensive and reduce Farc’s strength by half during the last eight years to an estimated 9,000 fighters today.

Responding to the video, vice-president-elect Angelino Garzón told reporters Saturday “the government of Juan Manuel Santos has not closed the doors to peace”.

Mr Santos will be sworn in as president on Saturday.

But both sides included conditions that will make a quick start to talks difficult to achieve. As well as a halt to attacks Mr Garzón insisted that Farc release forcibly recruited child soldiers and publicly renounce its military campaign. “Tell the population – this violence makes no sense,” he demanded.

But speaking to a group of Farc fighters, Cano acknowledged the government’s recent successes against his movement but said that so long as the causes of the conflict remain in place the civil war would continue. He said that the group was still mounting as many as 10 attacks a day against security forces.

The Farc leader said talks should include the government’s agreement to give the US access to Colombian military bases, land reform and a change in the country’s neo-liberal economic model.

Cano, the nom de guerre of former student leader Guillermo León Sáenz, has led Farc since the death of the group’s founder in 2008.

In the half-hour video he denied his movement was involved in drug trafficking and said it was the political elite who spent the profits of the country’s cocaine trade on luxury holidays to Europe while his fighters had fought for social justice in the jungles since 1964.

Both the EU and the US class Farc as a terrorist organisation and several of its top leaders are wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges. Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, which has funded both left- and right-wing armed groups and exacerbated corruption in the South American country.

Mr Uribe has made the capture of Cano a top military priority, deploying thousands of troops to the mountainous region of Tolima where he is believed to be in charge of the group’s 21st front.

Recently the military killed the head of his personal security team and captured his replacement.

Observers in Colombia say Mr Uribe would like nothing more than to see Cano captured or killed before he leaves office next Saturday.