* Negotiations to start in Oslo, then move to Havana
* Leftist FARC rebels have fought for five decades
* Santos seeks to do better than past failed negotiations
By Helen Murphy
BOGOTA, Sept 4 Colombia's peace talks with
leftist FARC guerrillas to try and end Latin America's
longest-running insurgency will begin next month in Norway
before moving to Cuba, President Juan Manuel Santos said on
Unlike past failed negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia rebels, there will be no ceasefire this time,
Santos said in a national TV address.
"I ask the Colombian people for patience and strength,"
Santos said, announcing the talks would start in the first half
of October. "There's no doubt it's time to turn the page."
While Colombians are hopeful Santos will succeed, he faces a
monumental task to reach peace with the FARC, which has holed up
in Colombia's jungle territory since 1964 and imposed tough
demands in past peace negotiations.
In a video message broadcast to journalists in Cuba, the
FARC's bearded leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his war alias
"Timochenko," urged a "civilized dialogue" to end the bloodshed.
Santos, 61, who is at the mid-point of a four-year term, had
repeatedly said he would consider talks with the FARC only if he
was certain the drug-funded group would negotiate in good faith.
"There are people like me that don't know a single day of
peace," said Santos, son of one of Colombia's most influential
families that founded the daily newspaper El Tiempo. "We have to
take the dream of living in peace and make it a reality."
Established almost five decades ago as a communist-inspired
peasant army, which later came to depend on drug-trafficking,
the FARC joins talks this time from a severely weakened
Battered by a decade-long U.S.-backed Colombian military
offensive, the rebels have lost as much as half their fighting
force, reducing their ability to launch major attacks on the
government. The rebels number around 8,000 fighters now.
Still, they are by no means spent and in recent months have
stepped up assaults on economic infrastructure like oil and
mining installations in a bid, some analysts say, to come to the
negotiating table from a position of relative strength.
'HOW MUCH DEATH?'
Santos said Venezuela and Chile would support talks that
would take place "without interruptions," although they would
end if there were no advances.
Critics of the peace process are worried the rebels could
use the time to build strength and prolong the war.
"The government has arrived at this dialogue from a position
of weakness and terrorism from a position of resurgent
strength," said former President Alvaro Uribe. "Security has
deteriorated significantly in the last two years."
In the video shown in Cuba, Timochenko said Colombians
deserved better than more years of conflict.
"How much death and destruction, how much pain and tears,
how much useless bereavement and abuse, how many lives and
smiles must be cut before we finally conclude that the end to
this isn't conflict but civilized dialogue?" he said, dressed in
an olive green uniform.
At the last peace talks in 1999-2002, former President
Andres Pastrana ceded the FARC a safe haven the size of
Switzerland to promote talks.
But the rebels took advantage of the breathing space to
train fighters, build more than 25 airstrips to fly drug
shipments and set up prison camps to hold its hostages.
Santos has been laying the groundwork for peace since he
took office, creating a reform that would help return land
stolen by FARC and paramilitary groups.
He also pushed through a constitutional amendment that set
the legal basis for eventual peace with the rebels. The reform
prohibits guerrilla leaders accused of crimes against humanity
from holding political office.
Around the region, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and U.S.
leader Barack Obama were among those wishing the talks success.
A White House statement praised Santos' "unwavering
commitment" to peace and urged the FARC "to end its decades of
terrorism and narcotics trafficking".
Chavez, who clashed with Santos when he was defense minister
under former president Uribe, also congratulated the Colombian
leader for seeking a "political" solution to the conflict.
"Congratulations to President Santos and his government and
the FARC leaders, and I hope that their effort to reach peace
won't fail," he said la te Tuesday. "Eno ugh of this war."
Among negotiating points, Santos said the two sides would
discuss rural development and improved access to land, the
integration of the rebels into civil society, the drugs industry
and the rights of victims.
The choice of Norway and Cuba as venues, plus Venezuela and
Chile as support countries, provide an ideological mix intended
to make both sides feel comfortable with the process.
Norway is well known for its international mediation work,
while Cuba and Venezuela are run by socialist governments with
whom the FARC feel political affinity. Chile's conservative
government is an ally of Bogota.
"It takes courage to seek peace," said Norway's Foreign
Affairs Minister Jonas Gahr Store in a statement. "I would like
to commend the parties for entering into a dialogue that could
bring an end to the protracted armed conflict in Colombia."
While a peace deal with the FARC would enable Colombia to
turn its sights on other problems, like rising criminal bands,
and give greater security to the booming oil and mining sectors,
it would bring complications of its own, analysts warn.
"The demobilization and reintegration process of thousands
of former combatants -- many of whom are adolescents with little
previous interaction with mainstream society -- will be
extremely difficult, and recidivism rates will probably be
high," said Heather Berkman, of Eurasia political risk