War Weary Columbians Wonder Peace is at Hand

After nearly 50 years of fighting with leftist rebels, Colombia has again taken a tentative step toward the tantalizing prospect of peace, with surprise word of exploratory talks with FARC guerrillas.

An accord would put an end to Latin America's oldest armed rebel group, but no one thinks it will happen any time soon. And Colombians are painfully aware that previous peace talks have failed.

A poll released this week after President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday disclosed the preliminary dialogue showed a boost in support for a negotiated settlement, rather than a continued drive to crush the country's main rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Little is known of the exploratory talks, but Colombian press reports say they began in February in Havana and yielded a negotiating agenda.

These reports say full-blown talks between the center-right government and the FARC could begin in early October in Norway and then continue in Cuba, under the auspices of Venezuela and Chile.

The process would be fraught with obstacles, such as disputes over how long the talks should take and even outright opposition to them taking place at all.

Already, lively public debate has begun on issues such as distributing land to peasants in a country where the divide between rich and poor is gaping _ the issue that gave rise to the FARC in 1964.

Others are rebels' links to drug trafficking and the idea of reincorporating guerrilla leaders into everyday life. Many of them have been convicted of crimes against humanity.

"It is unlikely that (the process) will be very fast. It will take at least a year, barring a miracle," said Ariel Avila, an expert on the Colombian conflict at a peace foundation called Nuevo Arco Iris, or New Rainbow.

The fresh prospect of peace seems to have been welcomed eagerly by Colombians. Support for a negotiated settlement has risen to 60 percent of those polled, up from 52 percent in June, according to a Gallup survey released Friday.

And the proportion of Colombians who instead prefer a military defeat of the guerrillas has dropped in the past two months from 44 to 37 percent, the poll said.

Still, Colombians know they have seen their hopes rise before, only to have them dashed.

Previous peace talks in Venezuela and Mexico in 1992 went nowhere.

The most recent stab at peace came a decade ago under Andres Pastrana, a conservative who served from 1998 to 2002. He demilitarized a vast area of 42,000 square kilometers in the southeast of the country. But the government ultimately broke off the talks, saying the FARC had used this gesture and safe-haven land to regroup and strengthen itself.

It was for this reason that Santos, in revealing the preliminary contacts, promised "not to repeat the mistakes of the past" and keep up military operations all over the country.

Santos, half-way through a four-year term, sought to head off criticism from those opposed to dialogue. This camp is led by Santos' predecessor and political mentor, Alvaro Uribe, who cracked down hard on the FARC, scoring major military successes.

Uribe accused Santos of allowing "the re-emergence of terrorism."

Avila disagreed, and alluded to Caguan, the demilitarized zone allowed by Pastrana. The difference with Caguan, he said, is that "now the FARC, while not defeated, is losing."

Over the past decade Colombia's army, which has received six billion dollars in aid from the United States since 2000 to fight rebels and drug trafficking, has reduced the FARC to half of what it once was in terms of foot soldiers. They now total around 9,200 fighters, and have been pushed back into rural areas.

Negotiating a ceasefire to facilitate peace talks -- such a process has been endorsed by the United States and European countries -- will be crucial, according to Colombian politicians and even the United Nations.

Among those making such an appeal is former leftist senator Piedad Cordoba, who has served as an mediator with the FARC to win hostage releases. She also runs an NGO called Colombians for Peace, which advocates a negotiated end to the conflict.

"The rebels and the government must stop shooting at each other because that hinders credibility and the building of an agenda," Cordoba told AFP.

She asserted that the FARC and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, which has about 2,500 fighters, are willing to accept a ceasefire.

President Santos has urged this smaller guerrilla army to join "this effort to put an end to the conflict."

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