BOGOTA/OSLO (Reuters) - Historic closed-door talks between Colombia and Marxist rebels began on Wednesday in Norway after FARC rebel and government negotiators arrived in Oslo in a bid to end almost half a century of armed conflict, Norwegian officials said.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is betting a decade of U.S.-backed blows against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has left the group sufficiently weakened to seriously seek an end to the war after so many failed attempts.
Both parties, whisked through a VIP section of Oslo airport, were taken to an undisclosed location around midday with the media completely shut out for planned meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, the Norwegian foreign ministry said.
This is the latest attempt to negotiate peace with the drug-funded rebels since they formed back in 1964. Past discussions ended in shambles, even strengthening the guerrillas’ ability to attack civilian and military targets.
Santos, a former defense minister, announced in September that the two sides had negotiated the terms of a draft agenda in Cuba, with the opening of the talks to take place in Oslo.
The five-point discussions will likely be thorny as they focus on the drug trade, victim rights, land ownership in rural areas, FARC participation in politics and how to end the war.
Despite the talks, Colombian troops have continued their offensive against the rebels and guerrillas have stepped up attacks in recent days against energy and mining installations.
Santos has refused to call a ceasefire until a peace accord is reached.
“Negotiating while conflict goes on is very dangerous and so I ask both sides to be very cautious with their actions,” opposition Senator Wilson Arias told Reuters.
“They both should lower the tone of the fighting.”
As well as being a personal victory for Santos, a successful end to the talks would increase the Andean nation’s weight in investment portfolios after years of being considered one of the world’s most dangerous places to visit and do business.
Direct foreign investment this year is expected to reach approximately $17 billion, a record, and well above the $2 billion it attracted in 2002. Back then, the FARC was at its strongest and able to easily launch attacks on the capital, Bogota.
Still, peace with the FARC will by no means end violence in Colombia as drug trafficking and criminal gangs - many born out of the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups - will continue to operate across the nation.
The negotiators are due to speak to reporters on Thursday, though it is not yet clear whether the two sides will appear together at the press conference.
Elected in a landslide in 2010 promising to maintain the tough stance against insurgents adopted by his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Santos has been slammed by opponents for a perceived deterioration in security.
Santos’ approval ratings have recovered since the peace talks were announced.
Rumors of talks with the FARC, Latin America’s largest insurgent group, swirled since Santos assumed office and took early steps to kick-start the process with reforms giving land back to displaced peasants and paying reparations to FARC victims.
“We are building peace with all the actions the government has taken. We are creating an environment for it through laws like the victims law and land law. And we are achieving it with our security gains and efforts to eradicate extreme poverty,” Santos said late on Tuesday.
While most Colombians approve of peace talks, polls show that more than half would oppose any deal allowing FARC leaders to participate in politics or giving them an amnesty for crimes committed in the conflict.
Norway and Cuba have agreed to act as guarantors at the talks, while representatives from Venezuela and Chile will also be present.
“If peace isn’t reached in the next few months, things will worsen because the disappointment and despair will only be silenced once guns are fired again to bring an end to the guerrillas,” La Republica newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“This is an unique opportunity for peace.”
Additional reporting by Carlos Vargas; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Stacey Joyce