Bogotá, Colombia (AP) – In a landmark television interview, the rarely-seen leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reaffirmed the commitment of Latin America's oldest insurgency to abandon the battlefield even while shying from a six-month deadline to sign a final peace accord.
Rodrigo Londoño said he has always considered himself an "enemy" of putting artificial dates on negotiations, fearing it could backfire against the rebels if a target is missed. But he said he eventually was persuaded to put aside those objections and join Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in making a pledge to reach a final deal by March because he trusts the president, whom he called an "ally of peace."
"If there's political will, we can do it earlier, but six months may also be too short," Londoño said in his first interview since peace talks began in Cuba three years ago.
The interview aired Tuesday night was as significant for its very existence as for any revelations made by the normally secretive Londoño, who is better known by the alias Timochenko.
Until last week, when he shook hands with President Santos in Havana to announce a breakthrough agreement on the thorny issue of punishment for war crimes during a half-century of fighting, the veteran guerrilla commander had been something of a sphinx to Colombians. When he was seen at all, it was only in videotaped messages from the jungle battlefield dressed in military fatigues and railing against Colombia's U.S.-backed "oligarchy."
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But in a speech alongside Santos and again in the interview aired Tuesday with Venezuelan-based network Telesur, Londoño tired to cast a softer image, wearing a white guayabera shirt and sporting his trademark salt-and-pepper beard neatly groomed.
In a heavily edited conversation with a leftist former Colombian senator, Piedad Cordoba, Londoño reminisced about his decision to run off with the rebels while still a teenager 40 years ago. And he spoke of a desire to one day return to the coffee-growing town where he was raised by a peasant communist father and devout Catholic mother.
Asked if he would ask the FARC's many victims for forgiveness, Londoño said tactical "errors" in the heat of battle were made on all sides, but that he had nothing to apologize for.
"Whoever asks for forgiveness it's because they regret something, and I don't regret anything," he said.
Without presenting any proof or details, he said the FARC early in the peace process had had the opportunity to assassinate Santos but desisted from carrying out an attack because the group's then-leader, alias Alfonso Cano, was against provoking more bloodshed while dialogue was underway. Cano was later killed in a military air attack.
Londoño said he is no longer dedicating energy to warfare and in the spirit of reconciliation would even meet with former President Alvaro Uribe, a harsh critic of the talks whose U.S.-backed military offensive last decade decimated the FARC's ranks.
The rebel leader also played down speculation that some of the FARC's estimated 6,500 troops would not adhere to a peace accord. Critics say many former fighters will dedicate themselves to drug trafficking and extortion, lucrative activities the group uses to fund its insurgency, instead of handing over their weapons for an uncertain future in which they'll be required to confess their abuses to special tribunals.
"I give you my full assurances, that there's not a single guerrilla, neither commander or combatant, that's in disagreement," said Londoño.