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Bogota hails 'important step' in FARC peace process

HAVANA--The Colombian government and the FARC concluded Friday a key part of peace talks designed to end the 50-year insurgency, hours after the rebels said they would observe a unilateral truce during May 25 elections.

The FARC said the truce will run from May 20 through May 28 and will also include the forces of Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos said it would not follow suit and vowed to keep pursuing the FARC.

The deal struck in the Cuban capital Havana to end Colombia's vast illicit drugs trade, part three of a six-point peace plan between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), could be a big boost for Santos in his re-election run, experts say.

“Today we are very close, closer than ever to obtaining peace,” Santos told supporters in Bogota.

“This is a definite step, an important step, and great news for Colombia and for the whole world.”

The two sides have been discussing for the past six months how to deal with a huge cocaine industry that has fueled the Marxist insurgency, as well as right-wing paramilitary groups and organized crime.

Agreement had been reached previously on two of the six points on the peace-talks agenda: rural development and the rebels' reintegration into the political process.

Speaking in Havana, where the Colombian government and the FARC have been in talks since 2012, host country representative Rodolfo Benitez said the latest deal would see a campaign to eradicate illicit crops, and there will be forced eradication if farmers insist on growing them.

Norwegian diplomat Dag Nylander, whose country is also a guarantor of the process, said the Colombian government would convene an international conference against drug trafficking under the aegis of the United Nations.

“A specific strategy to combat drug-related corruption will be developed,” said Nylander.

The sides have yet to take up three other agenda items: the laying down of weapons by the FARC, compensation for victims of the conflict and determining whether an eventual comprehensive peace agreement should be put to a national referendum, as the government insists.

Analyst Christian Voelkel, a Colombia specialist at the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP that the agreement was a landmark moment in the peace process, saying the two sides were now past the point of no return.

'Not going to stop'

The FARC, who have between 7,000 and 8,000 fighters, have been at war with the state since its founding in 1964. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the conflict.

Their announcement of a unilateral truce for the election was made as a gesture of goodwill, they said.

But Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon vowed there would be no let-up — Bogota has repeatedly refused to agree to a ceasefire with the rebels during the peace talks.

“We are not going to stop pursuing them simply because they do us the favor of refraining from committing one of the many crimes they commit,” he thundered.

In announcing the ceasefire, FARC representative Pablo Catatumbo said rebel units were under orders to halt all offensive operations against the Colombian military or infrastructure during the election period.

“The insurgency doesn't believe in the Colombian electoral system,” he said. “Nevertheless, we believe that a national clamor (for peace) should be heeded.

“Besides, we do it as a light of hope for a bilateral ceasefire.”

The FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, has observed temporary, unilateral ceasefires on two previous occasions since the start of peace talks in November 2012.

This would be the first time the ELN, or National Liberation Army, which is not a party to the peace talks, joins the FARC in a truce.

Catatumbo said the FARC's leader, Timoleon Jimenez, and the ELN's Nicolas Rodriguez had jointly agreed on the pause in the fighting.

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