July 12, 2015 / 6:28 PM / 2 years ago

Colombia says to de-escalate war if rebels uphold ceasefire

HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia pledged on Sunday to de-escalate military action against leftist guerrillas if the rebels uphold their unilateral ceasefire, providing a breakthrough in peace talks that had been threatened by an escalation of battlefield violence.

In a joint statement with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, the Colombian government said it would enact "de-escalation of military actions" beginning July 20 as long as the FARC maintains a ceasefire it called for that date.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Twitter called the announcement "an important step to advancing toward agreement."

The two sides have been engaged in peace talks for 2-1/2 years in Cuba in an attempt to end Latin America's longest war, which has killed some 220,000 people and displaced millions over 50 years.

But the talks have been overshadowed by an increase in fighting this year.

Santos has said he would like to reach a peace agreement in 2015, and the two sides on Sunday pledged to work "without delay" toward a deal.

To accelerate talks, they agreed to alter the structure, putting all remaining issues on the table at once instead of adhering to one topic at a time.

With the peace process in peril, the FARC on Wednesday called a unilateral ceasefire starting July 20, the sixth such ceasefire it has called during the course of the talks.

The FARC has long advocated a bilateral ceasefire, which the government has rejected saying the group has used previous attempts at such truces to rearm.

However, amid concerns that peace talks were floundering, media in Colombia began speculating Santos might soften his stance.

Santos has to balance his desire for peace with skepticism from right-wing opponents back home, who mistrust the FARC and accuse Santos of going soft after his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, had weakened the rebels with a military offensive.

The government's lead negotiator emphasized that de-escalation was not tantamount to a government ceasefire, and that the armed forces would respond based on FARC actions.

"We are not going to repeat failed experiences," said Humberto de la Calle, the lead government negotiator. "We are not going to just paralyze government forces for a simple illusion that will later prove frustrating."

In March, Santos agreed to halt air strikes in recognition of a FARC ceasefire called at Christmas time, but he ordered renewed assaults in response to a FARC attack that killed 10 soldiers. Fighting has since intensified.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Eric Walsh

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