BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's peace negotiators and Marxist FARC rebels will discuss a bilateral ceasefire as soon as possible, an agenda item that could lead to an end to five decades of war, Post-conflict Minister Oscar Naranjo said on Thursday.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for more than two years in hopes of ending a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.
Discussion of a bilateral ceasefire indicates that talks are advancing through the five-point agenda that could end in the signing of peace. So far, there has been partial agreement on three items.
"We don't want to create false expectations, but we can say that we're advancing firmly and solidly on an accord," said General Naranjo, a retired former head of the national police.
Santos said late on Wednesday he had instructed those negotiating with the FARC in Havana to discuss a joint ceasefire. The rebels have already declared an indefinite unilateral ceasefire.
Santos said the FARC has so far kept its word and not attacked military or civilian targets.
The president has repeatedly refused to call a ceasefire with the rebels until a final agreement is reached, although it was always scheduled for discussion.
The FARC welcomed Santos' move to discuss an end to hostilities but said his offensive against the group contradicted his message of peace.
"Common sense indicates that there is no coherence between the words that exalt the ceasefire and those that order to intensify the war," the FARC said in a statement.
Peace talks are a "window of opportunity" the government is offering to armed groups, including smaller rebel force the National Liberation Army (ELN), Naranjo told reporters.
The ELN has conducted exploratory discussions with the government on how to move to a formal negotiation, but is not yet fully included in the talks.
A successful accord would secure Santos a place in history as the leader who ended a conflict that displaced millions and left the Andean nation's reputation in tatters.
Previous peace efforts have ended in shambles and led Santos to be extra cautious about halting offensives while negotiations continue.
In 1988, the FARC used a safe haven ceded to them as part of talks to train fighters, build airstrips to fly drug shipments and set up prison camps to hold its hostages.
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn