December 25, 2009 / 11:59 PM / 9 years ago

Catholic Church seeks talks with Colombia rebels

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic Church official on Friday proposed a meeting in Europe with Colombia’s main guerrilla leader to discuss handover of hostages and possible negotiations to end Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

Soldiers patrol in an armoured personnel carrier in Corinto, Cauca province, November 25, 2009. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

Previous attempts to bring the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to the table have failed over conditions for the release of the captives it holds in jungle camps and demands that the rebels end hostilities before talks begin.

Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon said the plan to seek talks with the FARC was approved by President Alvaro Uribe, whose U.S.-backed army offensive has battered the guerrilla group to its weakest level in decades.

The proposal for dialogue with FARC commander Alfonso Cano came after Uribe blamed rebels for kidnapping and killing Luis Cuellar, the governor of Caqueta state. He was abducted from his home on Monday and later found with his throat cut, as soldiers pursued the kidnappers.

The kidnapping and murder raised questions about the success of Uribe’s campaign against the rebels. Colombia’s government has received billions in U.S. aid in its security campaign.

“If there is a dialogue it could be in Europe. The possibility is there. The president agrees with that, as long as it is in the best interests of the country,” Castrillon said in an interview with local RCN radio.

He did not give details on where talks could occur.

The FARC has not issued a statement on the kidnapping of Cuellar, the highest-profile attack on a politician during Uribe’s presidency. The Colombia leader, however, has ordered his military commanders to try to rescue 24 police and soldiers held by the rebels, some in captivity for more than a decade.

Cano took over the leadership of the rebel group last year after several of its top commanders were killed and its ranks were weakened by a steady flow of desertions due to increasing military pressure.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched rebel kidnapping two decades ago, is popular for his security drive which has helped cut back on the kidnapping, bombings and attacks that once made violence endemic in Colombia.

“The government is ready to told talks with these illegal armed groups once they show a real willingness to seek peace,” said Cesar Mauricio Velasquez, a presidential spokesman.

Uribe says any dialogue with the FARC must begin with a rebel ceasefire. The FARC has said it wants to handover the 24 hostages for hundreds of jailed fighters.

The rebel group previously has unilaterally released hostages in what it has described as goodwill gestures. Uribe says, while welcomed, those releases are part of FARC attempts to score political points. Rebels had said they planned to free two more hostages soon.

Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Paul Simao

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