Colombia’s armed forces will halt bombing raids against FARC rebels for one month, President Juan Manuel Santos said, in recognition of the unilateral ceasefire declared by the guerrillas, who are in peace talks with the government.
“In regards to the indefinite, unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC on December 18, we must recognise that they have fulfilled it,” Santos said in a televised address on Tuesday.
“For this reason, and to propel the de-escalation of the conflict, I have decided to order the defense ministry and the leaders of the armed forces to cease bombardments over FARC camps for one month,” Santos added.
Ceasing aerial raids, which have been the military’s most lethal means of attacking the FARC, could possibly be extended if the rebels continue to hold to their ceasefire, said Santos. But he also warned that the military would not shy away from engaging the guerrillas in combat or resuming aerial raids should civilians be threatened or if the FARC resumed hostilities.
The development is seen as a major stride in Colombia’s peace process aimed at ending Latin America’s longest-running civil war pitting FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, against the army.
“The last couple of months we have seen de-escalation of the conflict,” Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from Bogota, said.
On Saturday, the two sides announced a plan for a joint effort to remove unexploded land mines.
Controversial peace talks
However, Santos is likely to face harsh criticism from his former ally, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose intense military campaign against the rebels from 2002-2010 decimated their ranks.
Uribe, now a senator, has been sharply critical of Santos’ willingness to negotiate with “terrorists.”
Bombings raids against the FARC’s remote jungle and mountain hideouts have enabled the government to kill several high-ranking rebel leaders in recent years.
Santos also announced the creation of a peace assessment commission composed of prominent politicians and business people, with whom he will consult as the peace process reaches a “definitive” stage.
The conflict has killed 220,000 people and uprooted more than five million since FARC was launched in 1964.
Peace talks in Havana, which began in November 2012, have produced partial accords on several issues, but have yet to yield a final deal.
Meanwhile, Santos said the suspension of air bombardment of FARC camps will not be extended to Colombia’s other rebel group, the National Liberation Army. He says that guerrilla group has continued and increased its activities.