Colombia’s president has said his government will seek peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla group, to end five decades of war.
In a televised address from the presidential palace on Monday, Juan Manuel Santos said his government would learn from the mistakes of so many previous leaders who tried but failed to clinch a lasting ceasefire with the armed group, which is known by is acronym, FARC.
“We have had exploratory conversations with the FARC to seek an end to the conflict,” Santos said, confirming weeks of rumours that his government had started behind-the-scenes discussions.
The government may also reach out to the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, another guerrilla movement, he said.
Meanwhile, government troops will continue operations, Santos said.
A successful peace agreement with the rebels would secure Santos a place in history as the leader who ended a conflict that has killed tens of thousands over the years and left the Andean nation’s reputation in tatters.
As part of the deal to hold talks, the government agreed that leaders of FARC would not be extradited to other countries to stand trial, a Colombian intelligence source told the Reuters news agency.
Details of the accord are still being worked out, but the negotiations could take place in Cuba or in Norway, the source said.
‘Peace at any cost’
Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from Bogota, said “everything started some months ago” when Santos met his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, and asked him to begin a mediation process.
“No doubt – and Santos has been clear since his first day in office – that he wants peace to be his legacy. He said many times that there is only one possible way of winning the internal conflict in Colombia, and that is reaching peace,” our correspondent said.
Santos said that the military would not be giving up any territory to the FARC once negotiations began.
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Al Jazeera’s Rampietti said the Colombian government and parliament had been laying the groundwork for the peace process for months, and that mechanisms now exist within the law for it to proceed and for “a political solution” to be reached in the internal civil conflict.
US President Barack Obama is said to be aware of the process and is in agreement, the intelligence source said.
News of the peace talks is likely to anger Alvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor, who has criticised any idea of talks with the rebels and has admonished Santos for wanting “peace at any cost.”
The FARC, which calls itself “the people’s army” and claims to defend peasant rights, has battled about a dozen administrations since appearing in 1964, when its founder Manuel Marulanda and 48 rebels fought off thousands of troops in jungle hideouts.
The group has been dealt defeats in recent years, as US-trained special forces use sophisticated technology and spy networks to track the leaders.
The FARC’s string of defeats began in 2008 with a cross-border military raid into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, its second in command.
Marulanda died of a heart attack weeks later and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, who was later killed too.
The drug-funded group is led by Timoleon Jimenez, known by his war alias “Timochenko”.