FARC ready for peace or war, says French reporter

Thu May 31, 2012 5:17pm EDT

* Reporter was released in Colombia after a month

* Says guerrillas have "a parallel government"

* FARC weaker but have managed string of attacks

By Eduardo Garcia

BOGOTA, May 31 (Reuters) - Looking relaxed and healthy after a month in jungle captivity, French journalist Romeo Langlois said Colombia's FARC rebel leaders may be prepared for peace talks, but younger fighters are ready for 50 more years of war.

Langlois, 35, was released on Wednesday after being taken hostage i n late April when the military unit he was reporting alongside came under fire from heavily armed rebels.

Aided by billions of dollars in U.S. funding, Colombia's armed forces have debilitated the FARC, leaving it arguably at its weakest in almost five decades. Several top commanders have been killed in air strikes and its fighting force has been halved to about 8,000 fighters, the government says.

Still, Langlois, who covered Colombia's conflict for a decade, said his hostage experience left him feeling that the FARC remained very popular in remote areas were people live hand-to-mouth, hospitals are few and ill-equipped, and roads are almost non-existent.

"They are ready to continue the war for 50 more years if they need to, until peace comes, (but) peace on their terms ... they are really wary of the government," Langlois told reporters gathered at the French Embassy in Bogota.

The FARC's seven-member leadership vowed in February to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom and have made repeated signs that they may be ready to engage in peace talks.

President Juan Manuel Santos has also showed more willingness to talk with the rebels than his strong-arm predecessor Alvaro Uribe, but only if they cease attacks on civilian and military targets and free all captives.

Langlois, who received a bullet wound in his arm in the crossfire, said even if FARC commanders want peace the younger fighters recognize "how very, very strong they are."

"More than an armed group they are a parallel government in the countryside," he said, adding that although he was treated well he was moved repeatedly between different FARC units during the month he spent in the jungle.

Langlois said many poor Colombians living in remote areas are afraid of military patrol units and believe them to be the real "terrorists", not the FARC.

'COMPLICATED CONFLICT '

The freelance journalist described Colombia as his home, but said he planned to fly to France on Thursday to rest and spend time with his family.

He was welcomed by hundreds of villagers when he was freed. Many cheered the FARC rebels who walked with him into a jungle hamlet in the southern Caqueta region, a rebel-stronghold.

A decade of heavy strikes against the FARC has hobbled communication between their units and left them vulnerable to infiltration. Some second-tier commanders have turned themselves in to the authorities for fear of being killed by subordinates.

The FARC leadership does not have a strong grip on its foot soldiers, who operate across jungle, plain and mountain ranges hundreds of miles apart.

"This conflict is really complicated; those of us who cover it have a responsibility to explain that," Langlois said.

The FARC started as a Marxist peasant movement in the 1960s and later turned to kidnapping, extortion and drug smuggling to finance their insurgency. The European Union and United States have labeled the FARC a terrorist group.

Langlois declined to be drawn on the FARC's terrorist label, saying "For me, there is neither good nor bad in this conflict."

The FARC's involvement in the cocaine trade provides the group with funding to stay hidden and re-arm in inhospitable areas, and some units have stepped up attacks in recent months.

The rebels are suspected of being behind a bomb attack earlier this month against former Interior Minister Fernando Londono in Bogota. Londono survived the blast, but his driver and a bodyguard were killed.

FARC guerrillas also killed 12 soldiers in an ambush on an army unit near the Venezuelan border last week, and they have carried out a string of bomb attacks against oil infrastructure. (Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Helen Murphy and Daniel Wallis; Desking by Cynthia Osterman)

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