Colombia’s government has opened “exploratory talks” with the country’s main rebel group to try to end a stubborn 50-year-old conflict.
President Juan Manuel Santos announced the move in a brief televised address, confirming mounting rumours of talks, supposedly held in Cuba, between representatives of his government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is largely a peasant army.
Mr Santos offered no details of the talks, such as when they began, where they had been held, who had participated or what was discussed.
“In the coming days the results of the conversations with the FARC will become known,” said Mr Santos, whose government was able to secure congressional enactment in June of a “peace framework” law that would provide amnesty to rebel leaders.
The FARC, estimated to number about 9,000 fighters, suffered major defeats during a decade-long US-backed military build-up from 2000-2010 but has recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks, including sabotage of oil and coal mining installations.
On Sunday, a car bomb in a rural area of the south-eastern state of Meta killed six people, including two children.
Mr Santos said military operations would continue “on every single centimetre of national territory” during whatever peace process might emerge.
That statement was a clear allusion to the last peace dialogue held with the Farc, when the government surrendered a Switzerland-sized swathe of southern Colombia to the rebels from 1999-2002 and reconciliation efforts collapsed as the guerrillas continued to mount attacks on security forces, kidnap politicians and traffic in cocaine.
“We will learn from the errors of the past in order not to repeat them,” Mr Santos said.
His announcement followed a report yesterday by Venezuelan TV network Telesur that Colombia signed an agreement in Havana, Cuba, earlier in the day to begin peace talks in Oslo, Norway beginning in October.
Colombian officials would neither confirm nor deny those reports.
Mr Santos has faced withering criticism from his predecessor, conservative hardliner Alvaro Uribe, over his peace overtures to the Farc. The 61-year-old economist, from a prominent newspaper family, was Mr Uribe’s defence minister from 2006-2009 and overwhelmingly won election in 2010 in his coattails.
Mr Santos also mentioned in his address that Colombia’s number two rebel band, the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish-language initials ELN, had expressed a desire to participate in peace talks and said “they, too, could be part of this effort to end the conflict”.
The ELN, believed to number no more than 3,000 fighters, has also held failed peace talks with the government in the past.
In addition to Colombian territory, both the FARC and ELN operate out of rearguard positions in neighbouring countries, especially Venezuela.
That country’s president, Hugo Chavez, has been accused in the past by Colombian officials of providing refuge to Colombian rebels and the US has accused senior Venezuela military officials of providing the Farc with arms and helping it traffic in cocaine.
Mr Santos, a social progressive, has sought to create the conditions for peace through an ambitious program for returning land stolen from far-right militias to Colombia’s displaced, who number in the hundreds of thousands. But he has faced stiff resistance in rural Colombia, where right-wing criminal bands remain well-entrenched despite a peace pact made during Mr Uribe’s first term under which they purportedly laid down their arms.
Mr Santos has suffered badly in the polls in recent months, dropping from 64% approval in April to 48% in June.
Analysts welcomed Mr Santos’ announcement but stressed that a raft of formidable obstacles stand between him and peace with the Farc, beginning with the government’s ability to guarantee the safety of demobilised rebels.
A serious attempt in the 1980s to attain peace with the Farc also failed, in large part due to the wholesale slaughter by right-wing death squads of an estimated 5,000 rebels who decided to lay down their arms and enter politics.
Ariel Avila of the Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank said he feared Mr Santos was making “a risky bet” because any eventual peace dialogue was apt to get “trapped in the electoral process” that culminates in 2014 presidential elections.
Mr Santos has not announced whether he will seek re-election.