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Colombian rebels call rare news conference in Cuba


February 16. 2013 9:58PM
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(AP) Cuba's government called a news conference Tuesday in which it is anticipated that Colombia's main leftist rebel group could announce the start of talks to end a half-century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last week that preliminary talks to end the confrontation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, already have been held. At least some of the formal discussions are expected to take place in Cuba, whose communist government has mediated in past peace efforts and maintains surprisingly good relations with Colombia's conservative government.


The sides have agreed to open talks in Oslo, Norway, with Havana serving as the main seat of the peace process, according to a report by RCN Radio of Colombia, which is run by a cousin of Colombia's president and has published what it says is the text of the preliminary agreement between Santos' government and the FARC.


The document names the Cuban and Norwegian governments as "guarantors" of the discussions, and Venezuela and Chile as "participants."


The radio station reported that the agenda for discussion includes six central points: agrarian reform, political participation, drug trafficking, victims and reparations, ending the conflict and implementation of the peace deal. It said that Colombia and the FARC had been in preliminary discussions since late February.


Cuban authorities announced the press conference in an email to the foreign press, but gave no details on who will speak for the FARC.


The FARC delegation is believed to include some members of the rebels' ruling Secretariat, most of whom have grown old in the jungles as the stubborn conflict has dragged on. The ruling council includes Pablo Catatumbo and Mauricio Jaramillo, top military leaders. Another big name who might have a role to play is Rodrigo Granda, who was once called the FARC's foreign minister and is considered a top negotiator, though he is not a member of the Secretariat.


The Havana press conference will be the first the rebels have given outside Colombia in more than a decade.


The FARC has about 9,000 fighters but has suffered major setbacks in recent years, and the smaller National Liberation Army has 3,000 combatants. Santos has said they, too, could be interested in laying down their arms, though officials have not said they are part of the current discussions.


The last peace effort with the FARC ended in disaster in 2002, after three years of talks in a Switzerland-sized safe haven carved out of southern Colombia by then-President Andres Pastrana. The rebels never agreed to a cease-fire, nor did they stop kidnappings for ransom or trafficking in cocaine.


Since then, the FARC has been stung by a U.S.-backed military buildup called Plan Colombia, and by an aggressive counterinsurgency program which roughly halved the group's numbers. Since 2008, three senior FARC leaders have been slain in military raids, including top commander Alfonso Cano.


Cuban leader Raul Castro and his brother are among the only leaders left in Latin America old enough to remember the start of the Colombian insurgency as grownups, and they have long sought to play a leading role in regional affairs.


FARC and ELN members have long lived and received medical treatment on the island, often with the tacit approval of the Colombian government. Nonetheless, their presence has been one factor in the U.S. decision to label Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism, a designation that Cuba hotly contests.


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Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia.


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Follow Paul Haven and Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/paulhaven and http://twitter.com/fbajak


Associated Press


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