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June 23, 2017

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Colombia peace talks in Norway described as brief, perfunctory

HURDAL, Norway -- Colombia's first peace talks in a decade were inaugurated a half a world away on Thursday with a demonstration of just how differently the two sides view the nearly half century-old conflict.

The Oslo talks were brief, symbolic, largely perfunctory and held at a secret venue. They lasted seven hours and were followed by word that substantive talks will begin Nov. 15 in the Cuban capital of Havana and will first tackle "comprehensive agrarian development."

The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, sought to set a businesslike, cordial tone in brief remarks at a joint news conference at a lakeside hotel north of Oslo. He said the government seeks "mutual dignified treatment" in the talks and doesn't expect the sides to see eye-to-eye ideologically.

His counterpart from the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major insurgency, Ivan Marquez, said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had come to Oslo "with an olive branch."

Then he began railing against Colombia's "corrupt oligarchy," its alleged masters in Washington, "state-sponsored terrorism" and the "vampires" of transnational oil and mining it says are ravaging the nation.

"We want to denounce the crime of capitalism and neo-liberalism," he said during a 35-minute discourse that denounced oil and coal companies and individual Colombian politicians by name, including a cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos and a relative of one of the government negotiators.

Members of the government team, separated from the FARC negotiators by Norwegian and Cuban diplomats who have acted as facilitators, looked bored and slightly annoyed, some crossing their arms, others propping up chins with hands.

Land ownership issues are at the heart of Colombia's maddeningly complex conflict, which is fueled by cocaine trafficking and aggravated by far-right militias that have colluded with a military widely questioned for human right abuses. Colombia's most fertile land has been largely concentrated in the hands of cattle ranchers and drug traffickers.

President Santos has said he expects the talks to last months, not years, as did the failed 1999-2002 talks that were held in a Switzerland-sized safe haven. He has ruled out a safe haven, and says there will be no cease-fire.

The Norway talks focused chiefly on logistics and De la Calle said his delegation would return to Colombia on Friday after just two days in the Scandinavian country. One key member of its five-man negotiating team, former police director Oscar Naranjo, did not even attend.

A road map for the talks was signed in August following six months of secret negotiations in Cuba with the participation of that country's communist government and the Norwegians. They will be joined by delegates from Chile and Venezuela at the talks' next stage. The facilitators' exact role has not yet been explained.

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