Santos Confirms Colombian Government Held Talks With FARC Rebels

The Colombian government has held “exploratory talks” with the country’s Marxist rebels to seek an end to the country’s 50-year civil war.

The results of the government’s meetings with envoys from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will be known “in the coming days,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in a televised address yesterday evening.

“From the first day of my government I have complied with the constitutional obligation to search for peace,” President Juan Manuel Santos said today in a televised address. “To this end, we have started exploratory talks with the FARC with the aim of seeking an end to the conflict.”

An increase in FARC activity has contributed to a plunge in Santos’ poll ratings, even after his government tracked down and killed the group’s two most senior commanders. The guerrilla group’s attacks rose for a seventh straight year in 2011, to 2,148, according to the New Rainbow Foundation, a Bogota-based think tank that monitors the conflict.

The Colombian government “will maintain operations and a military presence in every centimeter of the country,” Santos said.

The President’s address came after Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero told Venezuela’s state-owned Telesur TV network yesterday that the government has held secret meetings with FARC envoys in Cuba since May. The meetings were also brokered by Venezuela and Norway, he said. Santos’ cousin, former Vice President Francisco Santos, who is director of RCN Radio, also reported that talks had taken place.

Botero, a reporter with a history of access to the guerrillas’ senior commanders, said the FARC has agreed to meet with Santos’s government in October. Botero has previously reported on Colombia’s civil conflict from inside guerrilla camps, and was the only journalist to interview three American defense contractors taken hostage by the FARC after their plane crashed in Colombia’s southern jungle in 2003.

The Doctor

Two senior rebels, including a member of the group’s seven-man ruling secretariat known as The Doctor, were involved in the talks, according to Botero.

The proportion of Colombians with a favorable image of the president fell to 47 percent in July from 71 percent a year earlier, according to a poll published by Semana Magazine. Approval of his handling of security fell 23 percentage points to 36 percent, the poll found.

“As Minister of Defense, Santos delivered the hardest blows to the guerrillas,” said Claudia Lopez, an analyst at La Silla Vacia, a Colombian political website, in a telephone interview yesterday. “This is the combination of a military operation with an eventual political negotiation that’s needed to find an end to the conflict.”

The surge in guerrilla attacks is hampering Colombia’s goal of increasing oil output to 1 million barrels a day from 914,000 barrels last year.

The rebels are targeting oil workers, pipelines and electricity pylons to try to derail what Santos says is one of the country’s growth “locomotives.” Attacks on oil pipelines more than quadrupled to 88 in the first seven months of the year, from 20 in the same period in 2011, according to the Defense Ministry.

Oil accounted for 49 percent of Colombia’s exports last year, up from 24 percent in 2007.

Santos Popularity

The talks could produce “a solution that doesn’t please anybody,” if the FARC insists on keeping some of its weapons, or the government grants immunity for people accused of crimes against humanity, said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“The best outcome is a cease of hostilities now, and the FARC’s demobilization and the delivery of as many of its members as possible,” Isacson said, speaking by phone from Washington D.C. before Santos’ speech.

Peace talks could also lead to more intensive attacks on Santos from former President Alvaro Uribe and his followers, Isacson said. Uribe, who supported Santos’ run for president in 2010, now attacks him continually in interviews and on his Twitter site.

Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said it is also willing to hold peace talks with the government, according to Reuters, which cited an interview with the group’s leader.

Frode Andersen, a spokesman for Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment when called before Santos’ address.

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