BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono has made secret government-authorized trips to Cuba several times in the last year to meet with his team of negotiators as part of peace talks to end 50 years of civil war, Colombian officials said on Thursday.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon confirmed persistent rumors about Londono showing up in Havana, saying he has been there at "different times".
A senior military intelligence source told Reuters that Londono, whose nom de guerre is "Timochenko", has gone to Havana several times on non-commercial flights from Venezuela, where Colombian sources say he has been hiding for years.
If true, it suggests Londono is guiding talks from the front instead of staying in a remote jungle hideout, lending a more serious tone to the negotiations between his Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the government.
The government authorized Londono's travel to Cuba, another government source told Reuters, but the rebel did not appear at the negotiating table. His visits were facilitated by Cuba and Venezuela, which are acting as guarantor countries at the talks, the source said, adding he did not know how many times Londono had traveled to Havana.
Previous efforts at reaching a peace deal in Colombia were undermined by the absence of Manuel Marulanda, who led the FARC for decades. He died of a heart attack in 2008.
Colombia's government has repeatedly said it would kill or arrest Londono if it could find him but it has also staked its reputation on winning a peace deal.
"There is a peace process and obviously the government has a negotiating team that has the authority to permit or facilitate certain types of situations," Pinzon told Radio Caracol on Thursday in discussing Londono's presence in Havana.
A FARC negotiator in Havana, Jesus Emilio Carvajalino, said Pinzon's comments on Londono's presence were incorrect.
"No, not at all, not at all. The news out of Colombia has no truth to it. We are all here on the same point on the agenda and there's nothing more. There are many rumors in Bogota," he said.
A representative at Venezuela's interior ministry would not comment and government officials in Cuba could not immediately be reached for comment.
The two sides in Havana are working through a five-point agenda aimed at ending a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began in 1964.
The talks have stretched over two years and reached partial deals on land reform, the FARC's future participation in politics, and an end to the illegal drugs trade.
Still under discussion are reparations for victims of the conflict and the demobilization of the some 8,000 FARC rebels.
The peace process has divided opinion in Colombia, with opposition figures, including former President Alvaro Uribe, alleging that the talks are too secretive and could give rebel leaders impunity for crimes committed during the conflict.
Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Helen Murphy and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional reporting by Monica Garcia and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Kieran Murray