BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s armed forces will halt bombing raids against Marxist FARC rebels for one month, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday, in recognition of a unilateral ceasefire declared by the guerrillas as peace talks with the government advance.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels declared a ceasefire on Dec. 18, but the government had until now refused to reciprocate or halt attacks against the guerrillas.
Ceasing aerial raids, which have been the military’s most lethal means of attacking the FARC, could possibly be extended if the rebels continue to hold to their ceasefire, Santos said in a televised address.
“In regards to the indefinite, unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC on Dec. 18, we must recognize that they have fulfilled it,” Santos said.
“For this reason, and to hasten the de-escalation of the conflict, I have decided to order the defense ministry and the leaders of the armed forces to cease bombardments over FARC camps for one month.”
Talks with the FARC, aimed at ending a five-decade-long war which has killed around 220,000 people and displaced millions, began in late 2012 and are taking place in Havana, Cuba.
The military will not shy away from engaging the guerrillas in combat or resuming aerial raids should civilians be threatened or if the FARC resumes hostilities, Santos said.
Nonetheless, Santos is likely to face harsh criticism from his former ally, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose intense military campaign against the rebels from 2002-2010 decimated their ranks. Uribe, now a senator, has been sharply critical of Santos’s willingness to negotiate with “terrorists”.
Bombings raids against the FARC’s remote jungle and mountain hide-outs have enabled the government to kill several high-ranking rebel leaders in recent years.
Santos also announced the creation of a peace assessment commission composed of prominent politicians and business people, with whom he will consult as the peace process reaches a “definitive” stage.
Negotiators involved in the two-year-old talks in Cuba have reached partial deals on land reform, rebels’ participation in politics and an end to the illegal drug trade. They are now tackling victim reparations and rebel demobilization.
Last week the two sides announced a joint effort to begin removing landmines across the country.
Santos said attacks would continue against the Andean country’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has held preliminary talks with the government but not yet agreed to formal peace negotiations.
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Murphy