Kerry encouraged by Colombia peace talks after Havana meeting

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was encouraged by progress in the Colombian peace process after meeting on Monday in Havana with representatives of Colombia’s Marxist FARC guerrilla group and the Bogota government, a State Department spokesman said.

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Kerry, in Cuba as part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the Communist-run island, met the two sides separately and called for them to redouble their efforts to resolve the remaining issues in the talks, spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

Kerry told both sides he was “encouraged that the ‘end of conflict’ issues are now front and center in the negotiations, including a formal bilateral ceasefire monitored by the U.N. Security Council, a timetable for disarmament, and security guarantees post-conflict for all lawful political actors,” according to the statement.

His involvement at the request of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos marked the first time a U.S. secretary of state had met with negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since peace talks started in Havana more than three years ago.

The meeting between the Colombian government delegation and Kerry was “very productive,” lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told journalists.

“There were extraordinarily concrete elements,” de la Calle said. “For example, the announcement of help from the United States relating to the security of people who lay down arms, which is a critical subject at the talks.”

The FARC thanked the U.S. for its support of the peace talks and said they hope to reach a final peace agreement in the coming months.

“On a not-distant date we will give good news to the country and the world - that Colombia has reached peace,” the rebel group said in a statement on its website.

Last year, the two sides agreed a March 23 deadline for a final accord, but negotiators have said a deal by that date now looks unlikely.

Washington designated the FARC a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, and many of its leaders have been indicted in the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking.

The United States sees the Colombian peace talks hosted by Cuba as an example of how restoring normal relations with Havana can help it achieve its wider goals in Latin America.

The Colombian war is the region’s longest-running conflict, with some 220,000 people killed and millions of others displaced since 1964.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana, Eric Beech in Washington and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Writing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Peter Cooney and Alistair Bell