(Reuters) Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos rejected a proposal on Thursday by leftist FARC rebels for a bilateral ceasefire during talks next month aimed at bringing an end to half a century of war.
The call for both sides to put down their weapons while talks are under way in Norway came earlier from leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia at a news conference in Havana.
The proposal and its rejection could complicate the process from the start as Santos is adamant that Colombian military operations would continue across “every centimeter” of the Andean nation.
Even as it prepares for the meetings, the FARC blew up two trucks at a coal mine on Tuesday, and Danilo Garcia, a top rebel commander and right-hand man to FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, was killed in a bombing attack by government troops.
“I have asked that military operations be intensified, that there will be no ceasefire of any kind,” Santos said during an address at a military base in Tolemaida, close to the capital.
“We won’t cede anything at all until we reach the final agreement,” he added. “That should be very clear.”
A decade ago, during the last attempt at ending Latin America’s longest-running insurgency, the rebels used a demilitarized area the size of Switzerland to beef up their military operations and establish a multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking network.
“One of the differences with past peace processes is that we won’t give up one centimeter of national territory or cease operations, and those principals have to be maintained until the end,” Santos said.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos speaks to the media at the Narino Presidential house in Bogota
At its news conference, the FARC named two negotiators who will sit with government representatives in Oslo and later in Cuba to try to end a war that has left tens of thousands dead since it began in 1964.
“We are going to propose a ceasefire immediately when we sit at the table,” senior FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo said.
“Better said, we are going to fight for it. We are going to discuss it there at the table, but it is one of the first points,” he said, announcing that talks would start on October 8 in Norway.
Santos said there was no firm start date yet and that talks could continue for as long as nine months.
The former defense minister, whose approval rating has fallen in recent months, surprised Colombians this week when he said there would be no ceasefire during peace talks with the FARC.
Santos had always demanded that the rebels put down their weapons, free all hostages and stop attacks on military, civilian and economic targets before any negotiations could be considered.
Some analysts have said Santos’ sliding poll numbers put pressure on him to allow the talks to go ahead without a unilateral ceasefire from the FARC.
Face-to-face discussions while both sides are killing each other in Colombia’s mountains would be difficult to sustain and could weaken the government’s hand, they said.
“The FARC will take advantage of its status as negotiator to appear legitimate to the people, while at the same time using weapons to increase terrorist acts to boost its strength at the negotiating table to break the will of the government,” said Vicente Torrijos, a Colombian political analyst.
The two sides have set a agenda for talks that includes the rights of victims, land ownership in rural areas and cocaine production and smuggling.
The FARC was founded in 1964 as a rural insurgency. Its founder, Manuel Marulanda, initially received support from the Soviet Union, Cuba and Colombia’s Communist Party.
Now an estimated 8,000 strong, the group is funded mainly by the cocaine trade and extortion and has resorted to recruiting children as support for its Marxist cause has waned. It is considered a terrorist organization by Washington and the European Union.
Although it has lost ground in recent years, its attacks affect Colombia’s fast-expanding mining and oil sectors.
Violence has battered Colombia for decades, not just involving the FARC but also drug cartels and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Arrest warrants suspended
Jaramillo said the FARC would send Ivan Marquez and Jose Santrich, both high-ranking leaders, to the talks and would reveal more participants soon.
“We have always wanted peace,” Jaramillo said.
Colombian Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre said on Tuesday that once the government accepted the FARC negotiators, all arrest warrants would be suspended.
The rebels said they were pursuing peace because the country needed it and sensed that the government felt the same.
“We think it is very important to develop and preserve this process because it responds to a need, a strong desire of the Colombian people,” FARC member Marco Leon said in Havana.
“Colombia and the world have changed. The principles of FARC go on unbowed,” said Ricardo Tellez, a top commander known by his war alias of Rodrigo Granda.
Santos unveiled his negotiating team on Wednesday, which includes a former vice president, a former police chief, a former military head, an industrialist, the president’s chief security adviser and a former environment minister.