HAVANA (Reuters) - The Colombian government and leftist guerrillas on Saturday jointly announced an agreement to remove landmines and other explosives from the battlefield in a sign of progress in their two-year-old peace talks being held in Cuba.
Colombia, at war for 50 years, is one of the most mined countries in the world, and removing the mines recently became a topic of discussion at the negotiating table.
Latin America's longest war has killed 220,000 people and displaced millions over 50 years. Landmines and discarded explosives have killed or wounded nearly 11,000 Colombians including 1,101 children since 1990, according to Colombian government statistics.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC) ranked the South American country second behind Afghanistan for the highest number of children killed or wounded by landmines, with 57 child casualties in 2013. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) issued a statement in which they agreed to ask the organization Norwegian People's Aid to coordinate a project to clear the battlefields of landmines, improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance.
Government soldiers and FARC rebels will participate in the effort, shedding their uniforms and laying down arms in order to provide information about the location of mines and other explosives. "Our main objective in these conversations is to put an end to the conflict and avoid future victims in our country, and that's why the de-mining proposal is a first but giant step toward peace," Humberto de la Calle, the government's chief negotiator, told reporters. Santos has attempted to inject a sense of urgency into the peace talks, setting a goal of reaching a final deal this year.
Earlier in the week the government sent high-ranking Colombian military officers to join negotiations for the first time in an attempt to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire.
A recently appointed U.S. special envoy to the Colombian peace talks, Bernard Aronson, met with government and rebel negotiators for the first time a week ago.
Sporadic fighting has taken place in Colombia between government troops and the guerrillas over the two years and four months of peace talks in Havana. So far, negotiators have reached partial agreements on land reform, political participation for ex-rebels and an end to the illegal drugs trade. Discussions on victim reparations and demobilization are ongoing.
Any final deal would be put before the voters for ratification.
Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by James Dalgleish and Matthew Lewis