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Colombian lawmakers want time limit to reach peace deal

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s government and Marxist rebels must sign a peace deal to end five decades of war by July to give Congress time to pass the necessary laws, lawmakers including a senior member of President Juan Manuel Santos’ party said on Tuesday.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos waves during the delivery of 568 new homes to families living in high-risk areas in Buenaventura, Valle, February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

Santos is negotiating peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, Colombia’s largest and strongest rebel group, and has said he wants a deal by November.

Six members of Congress, including Senate President Roy Barreras, met with FARC negotiators this week in Cuba, where the government and rebels are engaged in prickly negotiations to try to end Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.

“We express our concerns about the slow progress of the talks,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

They cited the time it would take to debate any needed reforms and also the 2014 national elections as reasons why the negotiations needed to be completed quickly.

“The government and FARC ... have between March and July to sign the peace agreement. Either peace is made now or it will not be made,” they said.

The most decisive factor in the presidential and congressional poll next year will be the outcome of the negotiations with the FARC. Opponents have already taken shots at Santos for the slow pace of the process so far.

Santos, 61, has been coy about whether he will seek another four-year term in May 2014, but the tone of his appearances in the last few weeks suggests he will run again.

He must declare his candidacy six months before the poll, which would be around the time he wants peace talks completed.

However, the government would need to send a bill on the peace agreement to Congress no later than August, the lawmakers said. Approval would need an absolute majority then the bill would be reviewed by the constitutional court.

“Congress will not legislate on any matter of substance, while the deal ending the conflict is not signed,” they said.

In apparent response, the FARC said in a statement: “Peace cannot be made subject to election needs nor legislature timings; the search should be constant.”

Various peace efforts since the 1980s have failed, and rebels were widely seen to have used past negotiations to re-arm and rebuild their ranks. Right-wing elements linked to Colombia’s political establishment were also accused of undermining talks.

Colombia’s war has heated up in recent weeks after a series of kidnappings and combat across the country, dragging down Santos’ popularity as many believe FARC guerrillas are gaining ground again.

Rebels have stepped up attacks against the oil and mining sectors, key industries for economic growth that have attracted huge foreign investment inflows since a 2002 military offensive pushed rebels into more remote hideouts.

On Tuesday, FARC rebels detonated a car bomb in the south-western Tumaco municipality near installations of state-run Ecopetrol, military sources said. No casualties were reported.

Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Carlos Vargas; Editing by Doina Chiacu