World

Political role for rebels in Colombia talks

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — President Juan Manuel Santos is hailing a partial agreement on a role in Colombian politics for the nation's largest rebel group as an unprecedented accomplishment after a year of peace talks.

He also told the nation in a televised address Wednesday evening, hours after the pact was announced in Havana, that there would be no suspension in negotiations just because election season is now imminent.

Santos is up for re-election in May and is expected to soon formally announce his intentions. Wednesday's agreement can only help his chances. It is void, however, unless agreement is reached on the rest of the six-point agenda. A similar partial, unpublished accord was reached earlier this year on land reform, the root of the half-century-old conflict.

Difficult talks lie ahead on such crucial issues as cooperation from the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, against illegal narcotics, believed to be its main revenue source. Rebel leaders' amnesty demands must also be squared with the judicial system's imperative of ensuring war criminals among the rebels are punished.

But Wednesday's announcement did inspire optimism as it marks the first time ever that the FARC has agreed to completely lay down its weapons and become a political movement. "We have come farther than ever before," Santos told the nation.

The talks are to pause briefly before resuming Nov. 18, when drug trafficking becomes their focus. The deals on land and political participation are the greatest advance toward peace since the 1980s, said Hector Riveros, point person for peace under Cesar Gaviria, Colombia's president from 1990 to 1994.

Talks in the 1980s led to an agreement in which the FARC formed a political wing called the Patriotic Union. But more than 3,000 of its members were systematically assassinated by right-wing death squads.

Two subsequent rounds of peace talks ended badly. But the FARC was seriously weakened beginning in 2002 under two-term hardline President Alvaro Uribe, a foe of the peace talks who is running for Senate in March elections.

A key element of Wednesday's deal is the creation of "special constituencies" in regions hit hardest by the conflict. Elected representatives from those areas would join Congress on a transitional basis.

A statement read in Havana by a Cuban diplomat facilitating the talks did not give details, such as how many seats could be involved. After it was read, both sides waxed optimistic in separate assessments of the deal.

"Colombia is living a springtime of dreams for justice," said Ivan Marquez, a top FARC commander. Norway, Cuba, Chile and Venezuelan diplomats have been accompanying the talks. The conflict has claimed more than 200,000 lives, mostly noncombatants.

Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona in Bogota, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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