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Colombian rebels say peace deal unlikely by March 23 deadline

HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels on Wednesday cast doubt on the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Colombian government by a March 23 deadline, despite a pledge by President Juan Manuel Santos to urgently press for a deal.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos speaks to the nation following the latest, historic step in the peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana, Cuba at the presidential palace in Bogota, December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Cesar Carrion/Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters

The government and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been negotiating in Cuba for three years to end Latin America’s longest war, which has killed 220,000 and displaced millions since 1964.

Upon reaching a breakthrough on Sept. 23, the two sides set a six-month deadline for a final agreement. That was announced with great fanfare as Santos travelled to Havana and joined hands with rebel leader Timochenko and Cuban President Raul Castro, but the FARC has since hedged on the date.

“We are trying to do the impossible to make the 23rd (of March), but there are objective reasons that certainly will prevent us from reaching it,” Joaquin Gomez, one of the FARC negotiators, told reporters in Havana.

“There are major stumbling blocks such as the clarification and dismantling of paramilitary groups, plus a large number of others, that have not been possible to overcome, and not because we are intentionally against the deadline,” he said.

The Colombian conflict has involved several sides including right-wing paramilitary groups, smaller leftist guerrilla forces, and international drug traffickers.

Although peace talks are only between the FARC and the government, they have agreed to extend amnesty to former paramilitary combatants as well.

Special tribunals would attempt to apply leniency whenever possible for those who admit misdeeds but deny amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The two sides signed the deal on creating the tribunals and providing reparations to war victims in December, leading Santos to say they were closer than ever to a final agreement.

Talks reconvened on Wednesday after being on hiatus since then. Last week, Santos said he had given instructions to his negotiating team to “press the accelerator” with the idea of meeting the March 23 deadline. He also announced his intention to call special sessions of Congress to clear any hurdles.

The final agenda point to be negotiated is on reaching a definitive bilateral ceasefire. They have already reached partial agreements on justice, land reform, combating drug trafficking and legalizing the FARC as a political party.

Any comprehensive agreement would then be placed before Colombian voters for approval.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta and James Dalgleish