Juan Manuel Santos has announced on Colombia's national television that his government has opened exploratory talks with the country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
He revealed few details but there are reports that formal peace negotiations could commence in Oslo, Norway, in October.
"The agreement does say that the purpose is to reach rapidly and effectively secession of hostilities and for the FARC to [lay down] arms and to demobilise, which is a very significant development … they have never agreed to be able to renounce violence as a means to reach political power."
- Jorge Restrepo from the Conflict Analysis Research Center
On Monday Santos said: "Exploratory conversations have been held with the FARC to find an end to the conflict. I want to make very clear to Colombians that the approaches that have been carried out and the ones that will happen in the future will be carried out within the framework based on these principles: We are going to learn from the mistakes made in the past so that they are not repeated. Second, any process must lead to the end of the conflict, not making it longer. Third, operations and military presence will be maintained across the entire national territory."
The FARC was established in 1964 as rural communities faced an increasingly aggressive assault by the US-backed military. The Colombian government's policy was to move peasants off the land in favour of large scale agribusiness.
Last November, Alfonso Cano, the group's supreme commander, was killed in a shootout with government forces.
The FARC has also seen thousands desert in recent years. It is believed the group now consists of 8,000 to 9,000 fighters - half the size it was a decade ago.
In April, the group released the last of its police and military hostages; and the Colombian Congress approved a constitutional amendment laying down a legal framework for an eventual peace process.
Colombia, a country with a population of 46 million, has attracted record levels of foreign investment following the government's anti-rebel push. Its economy is worth an estimated $330bn per year.
"[Laying down arms] has always been on the table at some point but I would be very surprised if [the FARC] were to do so before they are convinced and see tangible evidence that there's some movement forward with regard to the reforms that are important to them."
- Jim Jones, a development specialist
Meanwhile Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, known as ELN, has reportedly said it is willing to join the peace talks.
The ELN leader Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, also known as Gabino, was quoted as saying: "Well we are open, it's exactly our proposal, to seek room for open dialogue without conditions and start to discuss the nation's biggest problems. But the government has said no! Santos says he has the keys to peace in his pocket, but I think he has lost them because there seems to be no possibility of a serious dialogue, we remain holding out for that."
Inside Story Americas asks: Are the talks with the FARC likely to lead to peace? What will it take to end a conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years?
Joining presenter Shihab Rattansi for the discussion are guests: Jorge Restrepo, the director of the Conflict Analysis Research Center; Jim Jones, who has negotiated in person with several top FARC commanders; and Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin America Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
"I'm not at all surprised that President Santos is making this move at this point ... he had to make sure that there was enough of a willingness and a seriousness on the part of the guerillas to be able to risk this. I would doubt that he would have initiated without having some clear sense ...."
Cynthia Arnson from the Woodrow Wilson Center
|WHO ARE THE FARC?
The group was founded by Manuel Marulanda in 1964. The aim was to represent Colombia's rural poor and form a government. The group favours the redistribution of wealth and opposes privatisation. Official figures show that the FARC was at the height of its power in 2002, when it had 12,000 fighters and 40 per cent of the country's land. The government crackdown has weakened the movement over the last decade. Since Marulanda's death from a heart attack on March 26, 2008, government attacks have killed several rebel leaders. Timoleon Jimenez, a FARC hardliner, was appointed commander in November 2011. He has repeatedly called for peace talks with the Colombian government. Earlier in 2012, the FARC said it would no longer kidnap for ransom. The FARC raises funds using profits from drug trafficking.