Colombia's Santos seeks referendum to pave way for peace deal

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a Reuters interview at the presidential palace in Bogota August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he will send a bill to Congress seeking to hold a referendum on a hoped-for peace deal with the Marxist FARC group on the same day as national elections, a sign that he sees an agreed end to the conflict within months.

The government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have been in peace talks hosted by Cuba since last November aiming to end the conflict which has killed more than 200,000 since it began five decades ago.

The talks are advancing at a painstakingly slow pace with a partial deal on just one of five points so far, but both sides have nonetheless remained at the negotiation table, raising hopes for an end to Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.

Santos said on Thursday there was “urgency” to pass a law enabling the Colombian population to vote on an eventual peace deal together with either legislative elections or the presidential vote which will take place next March and May respectively. Colombian national elections take place every four years.

“If we reach agreements and reach them by the end of the year as we all want, and don’t have any way to have a referendum, it would be gravely irresponsible to not have foreseen this possibility,” Santos said, adding the bill would be presented to Congress later on Thursday.

The two sides have reached partial agreement on land reform and are currently working out ways for FARC members to enter the political system. Still on the agenda is the drug trade, how to compensate victims of the war and end the conflict.

FARC this week for the first time ever accepted partial responsibility for the decades of bloodshed, a significant change in its discourse, in which it had previously maintained its members were victims of government oppression.

Reporting by Monica Garcia; writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy and Bob Burgdorfer