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Radically divergent world views on display as Colombian peace talks launch in Norway

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Oct. 16, 2012: Colombia's government team for the peace talks with Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces ( FARC ) pose for a photo before embarking on an Colombian Air Force plane to Oslo at the military airport in Bogota, Colombia. (AP)

Colombia's first peace talks in a decade were inaugurated a half a world away on Thursday with a demonstration of just how differently the two sides view the nearly half century-old conflict.

The Oslo talks were brief, symbolic, largely perfunctory and held at a secret venue. They lasted seven hours and were followed by word that substantive talks will begin Nov. 15 in the Cuban capital of Havana and will first tackle "comprehensive agrarian development."

The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, sought to set a businesslike, cordial tone in brief remarks at a joint news conference at a lakeside hotel north of Oslo. He said the government seeks "mutual dignified treatment" in the talks and doesn't expect the sides to see eye-to-eye ideologically.

His counterpart from the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major insurgency, Ivan Marquez, said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had come to Oslo "with an olive branch."

Then he began railing against Colombia's "corrupt oligarchy," its alleged masters in Washington, "state-sponsored terrorism" and the "vampires" of transnational oil and mining it says are ravaging the nation.

"We want to denounce the crime of capitalism and neo-liberalism," he said during a 35-minute discourse that denounced oil and coal companies and individual Colombian politicians by name, including a cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos and a relative of one of the government negotiators.

Members of the government team, , separated from the FARC negotiators by Norwegian and Cuban diplomats who have acted as facilitators, looked bored and slightly annoyed, some crossing their arms, others propping up chins with hands.

Land ownership issues are at the heart of Colombia's maddeningly complex conflict, which is fueled by cocaine trafficking and aggravated by far-right militias that have colluded with a military widely questioned for human right abuses. Colombia's most fertile land has been largely concentrated in the hands of cattle ranchers and drug traffickers.

President Santos has said he expects the talks to last months, not years, as did the failed 1999-2002 talks that were held in a Switzerland-sized safe haven. He has ruled out a safe haven, and says there will be no cease-fire.

The Norway talks focused chiefly on logistics and De la Calle said his delegation would return to Colombia on Friday after just two days in the Scandinavian country. One key member of its five-man negotiating team, former police director Oscar Naranjo, did not even attend.

A road map for the talks was signed in August following six months of secret negotiations in Cuba with the participation of that country's communist government and the Norwegians.

They will be joined by delegates from Chile and Venezuela, which has long served as a refuge for FARC fighters, at the talks' next stage. The facilitators' exact role has not yet been explained.

This week's negotiations were to have begun in the first half of October but were delayed by the red tape of suspending arrest warrants for rebel leaders and a dispute over the FARC's last-minute naming of a Dutch female guerrilla, Tanja Nijmeijer, to its delegation against government objections.

A U.S. arrest warrant for her on hostage-taking and terrorism charges was not suspended. She was not in Oslo. De la Calle said she would join the rebel delegation in Cuba.

Also absent was one of the five men named to the FARC's team of top negotiators: Ricardo Palmera, who is better known by his nom-de-guerre Simon Trinidad. He is in solitary confinement at a maximum-security U.S. prison after being convicted in 2008 of conspiracy to kidnap three U.S. military contractors. They were held by the rebels for five years after their surveillance plane crashed in guerrilla-held territory, and were rescued that same year along with the presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

The rebel negotiators put a name tag for Trinidad, 62, at their end of the news conference's long table, but De la Calle said his participation "is not contemplated." Other Colombian officials had said he could possibly join the talks by videoconference. U.S. officials say they have received no request for that.

In his remarks, De la Calle expressed a willingness to compromise that has been characteristic of the Santos government, at the risk of angering Colombia's political right. Santos has already been applauded by the FARC for launching efforts to return stolen land.

"The government acknowledges that there are unjust social differences," De la Calle said. "We want to embark on a road to social change."

Colombia is a nation of deep social inequalities and rampant human rights violations. It leads the world in union leader killings and has hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

But De la Calle later complained at a separate news conference that the rebels had strayed from the talks' agreed five-point agenda with Marquez's blanket indictment of everything from capitalism to genetically modified seeds.

"We are not discussing the economic model. We are not discussing international investment," he said. After signing a peace accord, let the FARC enter politics, win elections and enact change peacefully, he added.

Analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said Marquez's view is "similar to that of some politicians on Colombia's left who reject the FARC's violent ways."

He called the talks' launch was notable for "an atmosphere of seriousness and discipline, and appearance that both sides are committed to the talks."

Marquez reiterated the rebels' desire for a cease-fire, which they enjoyed during failed 1999-2002 talks with a Switzerland-sized safe haven ceded by the government, but the government has refused.

The FARC has been seriously weakened in the decade since the last talks were held, reduced to about 9,000 fighters, as Colombia's military bulked up and gained effectiveness with the help of billions in U.S. aid.

The rebels are chiefly financed by cocaine trafficking and have also engaged in extortion and ransom kidnapping, which they claimed to have halted in February, a condition for the launch of secret talks.

Marquez, 57, is one of five members of the rebels' ruling Secretariat who is wanted by the United States for drug trafficking. The State Department has a $5 million reward out for him.

In addition to agrarian reform, the talks are to focus on full political rights for the peasant-based rebels once an agreement is signed and they disarm. The FARC would also get out of illegal narcotics, and restitution would be set for victims of the conflict.

One of the prickliest issues the process faces is what to do with combatants on both sides who are guilty of war crimes. A Colombian law passed in July contemplates amnesties and pardons. But groups including Human Rights Watch say anyone guilty of crimes against humanity should be brought to justice and punished.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.