HAVANA The recently appointed U.S. special envoy to Colombian peace talks met with government and rebel negotiators for the first time on Sunday, holding separate sessions with each side, a Colombian government official said.
President Barack Obama named veteran diplomat Bernard Aronson as special envoy on Feb. 20. It was Washington's second major engagement with Latin America after reversing longstanding Cuba policy on Dec. 17, agreeing to restore diplomatic ties and end half a century of confrontation with the communist-led island.
Cuba is also hosting the peace talks, in which the Colombian government and leftist FARC guerrillas are trying to end Latin America's longest war, which has killed more than 200,000 people since 1964.
Aronson, who was previously involved in peace efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, met first with Colombian government negotiator Humberto de la Calle and later with rebel leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said the official, who was unauthorized to be cited by name.
"They were very private meetings," the official said, declining to reveal what was discussed or how long they took place.
A FARC representative said the rebels would issue a statement on the matter on Monday.
"I can neither confirm nor deny the meeting," said Pablo Catatumbo, who is part of the FARC negotiating team. "It's a very delicate subject."
The FARC had long been pleading for direct American involvement in the talks, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos requested a more direct American role during a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Bogota in December.
Santos staked his presidency on peace talks, winning re-election last year against a right-wing opponent who had threatened to bring them to a halt.
Colombian negotiators have reached partial accords on political participation for ex-rebels, land reform and an end to the illegal drug trade. They are currently negotiating victim reparations and demobilization.
Once all five partial accords are reached, the two sides will review the entire agreement, which would then be placed before Colombian voters for ratification.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Peter Cooney)