October 10, 2014 / 2:18 PM / 3 years ago

Colombia says FARC rebel chief traveled twice to Cuba for peace talks

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono has traveled to Cuba twice to meet with his negotiating team as part of peace talks to end to five decades of war, the government said on Friday.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said in a statement the trips were made to guarantee agreements made so far at the negotiations and to push the talks between the rebels and the government forward.

Londono did not meet with government representatives or take a place at the negotiating table, Cristo said.

Until now, it was assumed that Londono, whose nom de guerre is "Timochenko," was taking a more secondary role in the peace talks through messages and consultations with rebel negotiators rather than direct leadership.

"At the request of the government, guarantor and observer nations facilitated conditions for the healthy development of the process that seeks to end the armed conflict, including internal consultations by the FARC," Cristo said.

Venezuela, Cuba, Norway and Chile are acting as guarantor and observer nations in the negotiations.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos authorized the visits, he told a business conference in Cartagena on Friday, adding that it was "normal" and "part of the process."

"Why did I authorize it? Because we are in negotiations, and just like my negotiators have to go to the presidential palace to consult me, their counterparts also have to consult on their decisions," the president said.

Santos launched peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the end of 2012 in a bid to end a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions since it began in 1964.

The interior minister did not reveal where Londono boarded the airplane to fly to Cuba, but a senior military intelligence source told Reuters on Thursday he had taken noncommercial flights from Venezuela.

High-level Colombian sources say he has been hiding in neighboring Venezuela for years.

The 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.

The two sides negotiating in Havana are working through a five-point agenda and so far have 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 Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Galloway and Marguerita Choy

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