BOGOTA Colombia on Thursday welcomed an offer by Marxist rebels for a ceasefire but rejected their demand for independent monitoring, putting the plan to stop hostilities on uncertain ground hours before it was to start.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced an indefinite ceasefire from Saturday if the government allows independent verification. But Latin America's oldest insurgency said it would be called off if government forces attacked.
In a statement, President Juan Manuel Santos' government rejected the call for verification but did not explicitly address the demand for a bilateral ceasefire, though it has continually ruled that option out.
"This must remain clear: the government will continue fulfilling its indeclinable constitutional duty to guarantee and protect the rights of Colombians," the statement said.
The FARC's stance puts the government in an awkward position by leaving the success of the group's offer to end hostilities up to Santos. The 50-year conflict with the rebels has killed more than 220,000.
But the government's statement made clear it expects the FARC to go ahead with a ceasefire despite refusing its verification condition.
"The government will evaluate the fulfillment of this decision by the FARC. The country neither can nor wishes to repeat past experiences in which announced ceasefires were only partially fulfilled," the statement said.
The United Nations in Colombia issued a statement calling the FARC's decision a gesture that would generate confidence in the peace process and reduce suffering in war-affected regions.
Santos, who has gambled his political legacy by negotiating with the FARC to bring peace, has insisted that military pressure be maintained on the group while both sides negotiate.
The rebels exploited a bilateral ceasefire during a previous attempt at peace talks more than a decade ago to expand their fighting force in a demilitarized zone and take captives.
"If the FARC have set down these conditions and the government says they value the ceasefire offer but won’t agree to them, where does that leave us? I am not sure the FARC can back down now," said analyst Nicholas Watson of Teneo Intelligence.
He said the group's indefinite ceasefire offer, taken at face value, was in itself significant and reflected the lower intensity of the conflict over the last year.
Colombians are sick of war and hopeful talks in Havana will end successfully, but also suspicious because of past failures.
(Additional reporting by Monica Garcia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)