Colombia, FARC say peace talks advancing
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia and the Marxist FARC rebels said on Sunday their talks aimed at ending half a century of conflict are picking up the pace and making progress toward an agreement on land reform, a key point in the peace process.
Speaking as they ended their latest round of negotiations in the Cuban capital, negotiators signaled that the public acrimony they had displayed in recent weeks did not reflect what was happening behind closed doors.
Rodrigo Granda, a senior leader of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said discussions were on the right track and moving "at the speed of a bullet train."
Lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle was more measured, but said "the pace has improved and we have to maintain and preserve it."
They are trying to end a war that dates to the FARC's formation in 1964 as a communist agrarian reform movement fighting Colombia's long history of social inequality and the concentration of land in the hands of a few.
Tens of thousands of people have died and millions more have been displaced in the war, Latin America's longest running insurgency and a vestige of the Cold War.
The two sides traded barbs before the current round of talks, when the FARC conducted attacks and kidnapped three people after the government refused to join them in a ceasefire.
The rebels also have issued statements calling for a halt to, among other things, foreign investment in oil exploration and mining in Colombia.
De la Calle said FARC's positions during negotiations are different.
"One thing is what the FARC says publicly as part of its platform ... and another thing is what it says at the table," he said.
The talks are built on a five-point agenda addressing the issues that provoked and prolonged the war, starting with land reform and rural development.
The FARC has proposed giving a broad swathe of Colombia to the poor, but the government has said land will not be taken from private landowners.
In a statement, the delegations said they discussed an "exhaustive analysis" of land reform and had drawn closer on "the proposal to give progressive access to land to the greatest number of Colombians possible that do not have it."
They said they had briefed representatives of Chile and Venezuela, who are aiding the peace process, on their progress.
Remaining issues include FARC's future political participation, ending the conflict, compensation for victims of the war and drug trafficking, which has helped fund the group for years.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said he wants the peace process wrapped up by November.
He initiated the talks on the bet that the FARC has been sufficiently weakened by a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive and is ready for peace.
The rebels are estimated to have 9,000 troops, who have been pushed into increasingly remote areas by the offensive.
De la Calle said the next round of talks would start on February 18.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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