BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia and its main leftist rebel group said Tuesday they have signed an accord to launch peace talks next month aimed at ending a stubborn, half-century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
In a nationally televised speech, President Juan Manuel Santos called the pact a road map to "a definitive peace." It was reached after six months of direct talks in Cuba, with that country's government and Norway serving as brokers following a year and a half of preparatory work.
The agreement, signed Aug. 27, does not include a cease-fire.
It also doesn't grant a safe haven to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the last peace talks did.
They ended disastrously in 2002 after three years of negotiations with the hijacking of a commercial airliner that ended the patience of then-President Andres Pastrana. Operating from a Switzerland-sized safe haven in southern Colombia, the rebels had never ceased to wage war, kidnap and traffic in cocaine.
Starting decades ago, the conflict has in essence been a class struggle distorted by the drug trade where the principal victims have been civilians.
The new attempt to end the Western Hemisphere's longest-running conflict will begin in the first half of October in Oslo, Norway, and continue in Havana. Venezuela and Chile will "accompany" the talks. How their roles will differ from those of Cuba and Norway was not explained.
Shortly after Santos spoke, the rebels held a news conference in Havana and played a video of their 53-year-old commander, Timoleon Jimenez, who acknowledged the withering pressure from Colombia's U.S.-backed military.
The salt-and-pepper-bearded Jimenez, speaking from what appeared to be a jungle setting with a poster of the FARC's late founder Manuel Marulanda behind him, issued an angry tirade against his country's military, calling its members "bloody-toothed vampires" who helped powerful multinationals "sack the country's riches."
Jimenez excoriated the government for not ceding territory or agreeing to a cease-fire but said the rebels agreed to talk peace because the government agreed to discuss issues vital for the rebels including land restitution and rural development.
The FARC has recently been stepping up hit-and-run attacks but has also continued to suffer, especially in air raids by planes fitted with U.S. avionics and targeting systems. On the eve of the announcement, the military said at least seven guerrillas were killed in a raid early Monday.
The FARC was born Marxist in 1964 but its rhetoric is more rooted in its peasant origins: Colombia has one of the world's widest gulfs between rich and poor and its second-largest internally displaced population after Sudan.
The FARC numbers about 9,000 fighters, about half its strength a decade ago, when a military buildup started with the help of more than $8 billion in U.S. aid and led to record desertions. Since 2008, three members of the FARC's ruling Secretariat have been killed in military raids, including Jimenez's predecessor, Alfonso Cano. He died in November 2011, a little more than a year after Santos took office.
Santos said the latest peace talks, the fourth with the FARC in three decades, are different because their "realistic agenda" includes the FARC agreeing to eventually lay down its arms and enter political life.
Other Colombian rebel movements, most notably the M-19 in 1990, have done that successfully.
Santos, a social progressive who dealt the FARC major blows as defense minister from 2006 to 2009, listed key topics such as agrarian reform, reducing poverty and compensating victims. He said another important item on the agenda is drug trafficking, sensitive because it's believed to be the FARC's main funding source.
The FARC announced on Feb. 26 that it was halting ransom kidnapping as a funding source. Cuba said in a statement Tuesday that exploratory talks had begun three days before that. The rebel group had then released its last "political prisoners," soldiers and police captured in combat.
Classified as an international terror organization by the U.S. State Department, the FARC is one of numerous illegal armed groups in Colombia that lives off the cocaine trade.
The White House issued a statement praising the "milestone" it said Santos had achieved and calling on the FARC to "take this opportunity to end its decades of terrorism and narcotics trafficking."
The U.S. State Department has issued $5 million rewards for five of the six members of the FARC's ruling Secretariat, deeming them major drug traffickers.
Other outlaw groups plaguing provincial Colombia include remnants of far-right paramilitaries created to fight the FARC in the 1980s and became private armies for drug traffickers and wealth landholders. The paramilitaries, perpetrators of most land thefts and dirty war killings, made peace with Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who opposes peace talks with the FARC.
British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement calling the talks "a courageous step."
"We know from Northern Ireland how important it is to learn from past mistakes and to have the political courage to pursue peace," he said. "The UK stands ready to draw on its experience in support of the Colombian peace process as it progresses."
Santos said the talks would not be open-ended, but did not set a deadline or say when the accord was signed.
"They will be measured in months, not in years," he said. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue."
Analyst Adam Isacson of the think tank the Washington Office on Latin America said Colombian society will have little patience if tangible results are not soon forthcoming.
"Santos is certainly constrained," he said. "Every month that this drags on his popularity will get hurt."
Santos was firm about what he called the government's insistence on not ceding an inch of territory: "Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity."
He did not mention a major potential obstacle to peace: amnesty for rebel leaders. A law enacted in June and sponsored by his government sets a framework for amnesties and pardons for rebel and military leaders who have not committed war crimes. An unusual alliance of conservative hardliners and human rights groups have aligned against it.
The FARC delegation that appeared in Havana left quickly without speaking to reporters but said it would hold a news conference on Thursday in the Cuban capital.
Cuban leader Raul Castro and his brother are among the only leaders left in Latin America who are old enough to remember as grown-ups the start of the Colombian insurgency, and they have long sought to play a leading role in regional affairs.
Santos thanked the Cubans for their role and also the president of neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. FARC leaders have long lived and received medical treatment in Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, in Cuba.
Nonetheless, their presence in Cuba has been one factor in the U.S. decision to label the island nation a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that Cuba hotly contests.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and David Stringer contributed to this report. Bajak reported form Bogota, Haven from Havana.
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