HAVANA/BOGOTA Colombia's leftist FARC rebels said on Thursday they would seek a bilateral ceasefire next month at the start of peace talks with the government aimed at ending half a century of war, and expressed hope the latest bid to end the conflict would succeed.
The proposal could complicate the process from the start because Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said this week there would be no ceasefire during the negotiations and military operations would continue in "every centimeter" of Colombia.
"We are going to propose a ceasefire immediately when we sit at the table," senior FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo told a news conference in Havana.
"Better said, we are going to fight for it. We are going to discuss it there at the table, but it is one of the first points," he said, announcing that talks would start on October 8 in Norway.
A decade ago, during the last attempt at ending Latin America's longest-running insurgency, the rebels used a demilitarized area the size of Switzerland to beef up their military operations and establish a multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking network.
"The government will reject this immediately and that will play into the hands of the FARC, which wants to continue in combat," said security analyst Alfredo Rangel in Bogota.
"The FARC will use violence to pressure the government at the negotiating table."
Santos, whose approval rating has fallen in recent months, surprised Colombians this week when he said there would be no ceasefire during peace talks with the FARC, which stands for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The former defense minister had always demanded that the rebels put down their weapons, free all hostages and stop attacks on military, civilian and economic targets before any negotiations could be considered.
However, some analysts believe Santos' sliding poll numbers could put pressure on him to allow the talks to go ahead without a unilateral ceasefire from the FARC.
Face-to-face discussions while both sides are killing each other in Colombia's mountains would be difficult to sustain and could weaken the government's hand, they said.
"The FARC will take advantage of its status as negotiator to appear legitimate to the people, while at the same time using weapons to increase terrorist acts to boost its strength at the negotiating table to break the will of the government," said Vicente Torrijos, a Colombian political analyst.
The two sides have set a agenda for talks that includes the rights of victims, land ownership in rural areas and cocaine production and smuggling.
The FARC was founded in 1964 as a rural insurgency. Its founder Manuel Marulanda initially received support from the Soviet Union, Cuba and Colombia's Communist Party.
Now an estimated 8,000-strong, the group is funded mainly by the cocaine trade and extortion and has resorted to recruiting children in recent years as support for its Marxist cause has waned. It is considered a terrorist organization by Washington and the European Union.
Although it has lost ground in recent years, its attacks affect Colombia's fast-expanding mining and oil sectors.
War has battered Colombia for decades, not just involving the FARC but also drug cartels and right-wing paramilitary groups thought sometimes to be working for the interests of government agencies.
ARREST WARRANTS SUSPENDED
Jaramillo said the FARC would send Ivan Marquez and Jose Santrich, both high-ranking leaders, to the talks and would reveal more participants soon.
"We have always wanted to move forward the processes (of peace)," he said. "We have always wanted peace."
Colombia's Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre said on Tuesday that once the government accepted the FARC negotiators, all arrest warrants would be suspended.
The rebels said they were pursuing peace because the country needed it and sensed that the government felt the same.
"We think it is very important to develop and preserve this process because it responds to a need, a strong desire of the Colombian people," said FARC member Marco Leon.
"Colombia and the world have changed. The principles of FARC go on unbowed," said Ricardo Tellez, a top commander known by his war alias of Rodrigo Granda.
Santos unveiled his negotiating team on Wednesday, which includes a former vice president, a former police chief, a former military head, an industrialist, the president's chief security adviser and a former environment minister.
Despite the conciliatory words, experts say the peace process will be difficult, with many disagreements to overcome.
Even as they prepare for the meetings, on Tuesday the FARC blew up two trucks at a coal mine and Danilo Garcia, a top rebel commander and right hand man to FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, was killed in a bombing attack by government troops.
Londono said in a video shown at the start of the news conference there were enemies who opposed the talks, but the process "must culminate with a new Colombia, just and democratic."
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing By Tom Brown and David Brunnstrom)