Government in Colombia begins Farc peace talks


COLOMBIA’S PRESIDENT has confirmed that his government is in “exploratory conversations” with the country’s Farc guerrilla group to discuss a possible peace process aimed at ending almost 50 years of civil war.

Speaking in a televised address from the presidential palace on Monday night, Juan Manuel Santos confirmed weeks of rumours that he was preparing a peace initiative, following a decade-long offensive by the state against Latin America’s biggest left-wing insurgency.

“Since the first day of my presidency I have completed my constitutional duty to find peace. With that objective we have held exploratory conversations with the Farc to seek an end to the conflict,” he told viewers, saying more details about the talks would be released in the coming days.

Mr Santos said his government would not repeat the mistakes of past attempts at peace negotiations, arguing “whatever process must lead to the end of the conflict, not its prolongation”.

He said the military would continue its operations and maintain a presence across the country, thus ruling out any repeat of the 1999 peace effort when then-president Andrés Pastrana ceded an area the size of Switzerland in the southeast of the country to the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The organisation then used this goodwill gesture to regroup and retrain, leading to accusations it had negotiated in bad faith.

Mr Santos said the country’s smaller guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, had also signalled that it was prepared to negotiate.

Though details are yet to be confirmed by any of the participants, the Telesur network has reported that talks are being sponsored by Cuba, Venezuela and Norway and could start this October in Oslo.

Monday’s announcement was greeted cautiously by many across Colombia’s political spectrum.

But Mr Santos’s hardline predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, criticised the move, saying it was part of a plan to confer international prestige on Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, ahead of his re-election bid in October. He warned that Mr Santos’s peace effort had already caused an “upsurge of terrorism” for which the country would “pay a heavy price”.

In office Mr Uribe was an implacable foe of the Farc and criticised Mr Santos for passing a law in June that provides for an amnesty of Farc leaders in the event of a peace agreement.

The president, however, enjoys huge credibility among Colombians from his time as Mr Uribe’s defence minister when he oversaw the killing and capture of many of the Farc’s top commandants. The offensive he ran cut the rebels’ strength in half and pushed it back from the cities into remote mountain and jungle regions.

Speaking yesterday Mr Santos said that since becoming president the military had killed Alfonso Cano and Mono Jojoy, the Farc’s military and political chiefs respectively, as well the leaders of 18 of the group’s “fronts” – its main field units. “This is much more than has been done in the past,” he said, in a rebuttal of his former boss’s criticism.