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Colombian FARC leader Catatumbo joins peace talks in Havana

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian rebel leader Pablo Catatumbo has joined the team of FARC negotiators hammering out a peace deal in Havana, a move that could help the Marxist group garner more support from low-ranking guerrillas to end the country’s five-decade conflict.

Catatumbo, who is sought by the United States for drug trafficking, went to Havana with other members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to reinforce the negotiating team, the rebel group said in a statement on Sunday.

“Colombia’s destiny cannot be war ... let’s move forward with the fight for peace and social justice,” the statement said.

Government negotiators and FARC leaders have been meeting since November to reach a deal that would end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands since it began in 1964. When talks started, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he hoped there would be an agreement within a year.

The statement did not say if Catatumbo will replace someone else at the FARC’s negotiating team.

Some observers believe the FARC team does not represent the entire group, which many say has become fractured and unable to communicate following a 10-year military offensive that has killed top commanders and pushed the guerrillas into remote areas.

Despite being at its weakest in decades, the FARC still has some 8,000 troops and has stepped up attacks in recent months against oil and mining installations.

Catatumbo, whose real name is Jorge Torres Victoria, is one of the FARC’s seven-member leadership group known as the Secretariat. He heads a strong FARC unit in Southern Colombia involved in attacks and clashes with the army almost on a daily basis.

The government and the FARC are discussing rural development and land reform, the first issues on a five-point agenda, with the aim of addressing the root of the conflict - the South American country’s long history of social inequality and land ownership concentrated in the hands of a few.

The FARC has repeatedly said that the government’s refusal to engage in a bilateral ceasefire during the negotiations could undermine the peace process.

But the two sides in March said they had made enough progress that they asked the U.N. office in Colombia to start preparing for a public forum on their next agenda item, the FARC’s future political participation.

The FARC first took up arms in the 1960s as a Marxist group struggling against inequality but later turned to kidnapping and cocaine-trafficking to finance itself.

The group is popular in rural areas where hospitals and schools are scarce and many people feel they are not benefiting from the economic boom that city-dwellers are enjoying.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Philip Barbara