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Colombia Starts Talks to End Half-Century of Armed Conflict

Colombia’s government has its best chance yet of ending almost half a century of civil war as negotiators sit down today in Oslo with a rebel group whose ranks have been thinned by a decade of military defeats.

President Juan Manuel Santos vows that the talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will last months rather than years as the two sides look to end a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Negotiators will meet behind closed doors today before holding a press conference outside the Norwegian capital tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. local time.

Success is far from certain as victims of the civil war threaten to reject any government offers of amnesty while some guerrilla fighters resist the call to give up arms and rejoin peaceful society. Still, the two sides may be closer than ever following military setbacks for FARC that included the death of the movement’s leader last year, analyst Adam Isacson said by phone from Washington yesterday.

“Both see the cost of continuing to fight as greater perhaps than the cost of negotiating a way out,” said Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America. “If I had to bet, I’d say this is ultimately going to work, but I’m worried there are some really thorny things on the agenda.”

Talks will cover six areas that include issues such as human rights, violence, drug trafficking and giving peasants more political power. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government, which the U.S. has accused of harboring FARC leaders, will send delegates to participate in the process along with Chile, whose billionaire President Sebastian Pinera is an ally of Santos.

Economic Dividend

Colombia’s economy could see Asia-like growth of 6 percent to 7 percent “for decades” if the government strikes a peace deal that would open up farmland in rebel-held territory for development, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said in an interview last month.

Ecopetrol SA, Colombia’s largest oil company that has undertaken an $80 billion investment plan through 2020, also stands to benefit as peace would reduce rebel attacks on its pipelines.

Previous peace talks failed in 2002 after rebel strength surged following President Andres Pastrana’s decision four years earlier to cede guerrillas a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone that critics saw as the staging ground for drug trafficking and military operations.

Sincere Hopes

Colombia’s economy grew an average 4.5 percent over the past decade and will expand at a similar pace this year and next, according to the median estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

Former Interior Minister Humberto De La Calle will lead the government’s negotiating efforts.

“We sincerely think that conditions exist to achieve an effective and favorable result,” De La Calle said in a statement posted on the presidential website yesterday.

Santos, who continued predecessor Alvaro Uribe’s U.S.- funded offensive against the guerrillas and last year oversaw the killing of their leader, Alfonso Cano, in September turned down the FARC’s request for a mutual cease-fire.

The proportion of Colombians with a favorable image of Santos rose to 63 percent last month, up 18 percentage points from August, according to a poll by Datexco Co. published in El Tiempo newspaper. The Sept. 24-26 telephone survey of 1,000 people, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, found that 67.4 percent approve of Santos’ handling of the peace process.

Thinning Ranks

The army’s military assault has weakened the FARC, whose ranks have fallen by more than half to an estimated 8,000 over the past decade, according to the government. The guerrillas this year vowed to halt a decades-old tradition of kidnapping for ransom, eliminating a major source of funding.

While the group has been weakened, units of the FARC still are able to finance operations with drug money and remain well entrenched in remote parts of Colombia, said Steven Dudley, co-director of Washington-based research group InSight Crime, which studies organized crime in Latin America.

Terrorist acts in the South American nation jumped 55 percent to 649 incidents in the first nine months of the year from 419 in the same period a year ago, as sabotage of infrastructure rose by almost half, according to the latest Defense Ministry figures.

Given their entrenched status, the rebels may be under little pressure to comply with Santos’ goal of reaching a deal in months, Dudley said by phone.

“The FARC is a rebel group with a long view; they don’t have a four-year term limit,” Dudley said. “Don’t expect any major agreements to be hammered out in the government’s time-period.”

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