BOGOTA Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday he would consider meeting FARC rebel leader Timochenko to accelerate talks aimed at ending 50 years of conflict but warned the nation will continue at war if Colombians reject what is agreed at the negotiating table.
Santos, who started peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, back in November, said the time for peace is "now or never" but reiterated that any negotiated agreements must be ratified by popular vote.
In an interview with local radio, Santos said he is willing to meet Timochenko, whose real name is Rodrigo Londono, in pursuit of peace so that the Andean nation can move into a different phase of stability and economic development.
"I think this is the most important process that Colombia can have and, if it's successful, the most important thing that can happen to Colombia in recent history," Santos told W Radio, referring to the talks hosted by Cuba.
"So if there's a need at some point, for the process to be successful, that a meeting takes place, I won't rule it out," he said when asked whether he would meet with the FARC leader.
More than three dozen FARC commanders are in Cuba working through a five-point agenda that would let the two sides declare an end to the fighting that has killed more than 200,000 since it began in 1964. The war has pit the FARC and a smaller rebel group, the ELN, against government troops and illegal paramilitary death squads.
Timochenko is not personally taking part in the negotiations and his exact whereabouts are unknown. He is thought to be coordinating the war from hiding in Venezuela.
Santos last week sent draft legislation to congress that would seek to ratify any deals signed in Havana through a referendum that would coincide with national elections next March or May.
VOTERS GET FINAL SAY
If the voters do not like the way peace is achieved and how it would impact the nation, the accords would be moot, Santos said.
"In that case there wouldn't be a peace process; so simple, we'd continue at war," he said, acknowledging that talks may stretch beyond November, the date he sees as ideal.
While most Colombian support the peace process, many doubt they will soon reach a successful end. Opposition leaders like former President Alvaro Uribe are furious that Santos may be giving too many concessions to the FARC in order to cement his legacy.
The FARC has battled a dozen governments since it began as an agrarian struggle against rural inequality. Even while it has been severely weakened in the past 10 years by a heavy U.S.-backed offensive, the leftist guerrilla movement remains a formidable threat to the government and civilian population.
In recent months, the FARC has sought to boost its political sway in rural areas, supporting labor disputes and backing road blocks that have piled pressure on the government.
Santos asked Colombians to take little heed of what the FARC says on the sidelines of talks since the agenda was firmly set ahead of time.
The latest demand from the rebels came on Tuesday from Cuba and called for citizen involvement in economic decision making. They want one of the seven members of the central bank board, which sets interest rates, to be elected by popular vote.
The official agenda includes rebel participation in politics, an end to the conflict, how to eliminate the drug trade, reparations for victims, and agrarian reform - on which the two sides have reached partial accord.
The rebels have said repeatedly they do not want a referendum on peace and insist on a constituent assembly as the best way to enshrine the tenets of the accords in the nation's constitution.
Any meeting between Santos and Timochenko would be the first such sit down since former President Andres Pastrana met rebel founder Manuel Marulanda during peace talks that fell apart in 2002.
Timochenko, who was trained in irregular warfare in Cuba and politics in Russia in the 1980s, took over as head of the Marxist FARC after Colombian forces killed former boss Alfonso Cano in late 2011.
Colombia's attorney general has put out at least 117 capture orders against Timochenko for kidnapping, murder, rebellion and terrorism while the United States has offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Bill Trott)