BOGOTA, Colombia – The Colombian government has opened "exploratory talks" with its largest rebel aimed at ending a half-century insurgency, President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday.
Santos' announcement in a brief televised address confirmed mounting rumors of talks, supposedly held in Cuba, between representatives of his government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is largely a peasant army.
Santos offered no details of the talks, such as when they began, where they have been held, who has participated or what has been discussed.
"In the coming days the results of the conversations with the FARC will become known," said Santos, whose government was able to secure congressional enactment in June of a "peace framework" law that would provide amnesty to rebel leaders.
The FARC, estimated to number about 9,000 fighters, suffered major defeats during a decade-long U.S.-backed military buildup from 2000-2010 but have recently stepped up hit-and-run attacks, including sabotage of oil and coal mining installations. On Sunday, a car bomb in a rural area of the southeastern state of Meta killed six people, including two children.
Santos said military operations would continue "on every single centimeter of national territory" during whatever peace process might emerge.
That statement was a clear allusion to the last peace dialogue held with the FARC, when the government ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of southern Colombia to the rebels from 1999-2002 and reconciliation efforts collapsed as the guerrillas continued to mount attacks elsewhere on security forces, kidnap politicians and traffic in cocaine.
"We will learn from the errors of the past in order not to repeat them," Santos said.
His announcement followed a report Monday by the Venezuelan TV network Telesur that Colombia had signed an agreement in Havana earlier in the day to begin peace talks in Oslo, Norway beginning in October.
Colombian officials would neither confirm nor deny that report.
Santos has faced withering criticism from his predecessor, conservative hardliner Alvaro Uribe, over his peace overtures to the FARC. The 61-year-old economist, scion of a prominent newspaper family, was Uribe's defense minister from 2006-2009 and overwhelmingly won election in 2010 in his coattails.
Uribe has in recent weeks been zealously objecting to the Santos-FARC contacts.
Speaking to supporters Monday after Santos' announcement he questioned "what it is that we are going to negotiate?" He repeated his warning that peace would lead to military officers in jail and rebels in Congress.
Santos also mentioned in his address that Colombia's No. 2 rebel band, the National Liberation Army known by its Spanish-language initials ELN had expressed a desire to participate in peace talks and said "they, too, could be part of this effort to end the conflict."
The ELN is believed to number no more than 3,000 fighters and has recently stepped up attacks and kidnappings. Like the FARC, it has also held a series of failed past peace talks with the government.
In addition to Colombian territory, both the FARC and ELN operate out of rearguard positions in neighboring countries, especially Venezuela.
That country's president, Hugo Chavez, has been accused in the past by Colombian officials of providing refuge to Colombian rebels and the U.S. says senior Venezuela military officials have provided the FARC with arms and helped it traffic in cocaine.
Santos, a social progressive, has sought to create the conditions for peace through an ambitious program for returning land stolen from far-right militias to Colombia's displaced people, who number in the hundreds of thousands. But he has faced stiff resistance in rural Colombia, where right-wing criminal bands remain well-entrenched despite a peace pact made during Uribe's first term under which they purportedly laid down their arms.
Santos has suffered badly in the polls in recent months, dropping from 64 percent approval in April to 48 percent in June.
Analysts welcomed Santos' announcement but stressed that a raft of formidable obstacles stand between him and peace with the FARC, beginning with the government's ability to guarantee the safety of demobilized rebels.
A serious attempt in the 1980s to attain peace with the FARC also failed, in large part due to the wholesale slaughter by right-wing death squads of an estimated 5,000 rebels who decided to lay down their arms and enter politics.
Ariel Avila of the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank said he feared Santos was making "a risky bet" because any eventual peace dialogue is apt to get "trapped in the electoral process" that culminates in 2014 presidential elections.
Santos has not announced whether he will seek re-election.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.