Representatives of the Colombian government and the Andean nation's largest guerrilla group, the FARC, will sit down next month in Oslo for talks aimed at ending their decades-long conflict.

The agreement to begin negotiations emerged from six months of exploratory discussions in Havana under the auspices of the Cuban and Norwegian governments, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday in a nationally broadcast address.

Venezuela and Chile will join Cuba and Norway in accompanying the nascent peace process, Santos said.

He said the preliminary conversations in Havana arose "from some channels the previous (Colombian) administration had established" with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The exploratory talks produced consensus on "the goal, the agenda and the rules of the game" for achieving peace, the president said.

"I have the conviction that we are facing a real opportunity to definitively end the internal armed conflict," Santos told Colombians. "It's a difficult path, but it's a path we must explore."

This new peace process differs from earlier failed attempts, he said, in that it will unfold outside Colombia, initially in Oslo and then in Havana.

The most recent negotiations, during the 1998-2002 government of President Andres Pastrana, took place in a demilitarized area of southern Colombia - dubbed "Farclandia" - and collapsed amid mutual recriminations.

This time, the government is not ceding any territory, Santos said, adding that security forces will react decisively to any violent action by the FARC.

He said the forthcoming negotiations will focus on rural development and improved access to land; security guarantees for the political opposition and activists; an end to armed conflict and the full demobilization of the guerrillas; the problem of drug trafficking; and the rights of victims of both the rebels and the security forces.

Santos' decision to talk peace with the FARC is supported by 60 percent of Colombians, according to a Gallup poll released Sunday, while the smaller ELN insurgency has expressed an interest in joining the process.

The loudest criticism of the venture has come from Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who called the peace process "a slap in the face to democracy."

About the same time that Santos was addressing Colombians, six members of the FARC held a rare press conference in Havana to hail the accord on peace talks and present a video message about the negotiations from the group's leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias "Timochenko."

The FARC has battled a succession of Colombian governments since 1964. The insurgency swelled to nearly 20,000 fighters in the early 2000s, but now numbers around 8,500 combatants.

Colombia's armed forces, bolstered by billions of dollars of aid from the United States, have scored dramatic successes against the FARC in recent years, but the rebels remain capable of inflicting significant damage on the military and on vulnerable infrastructure.

EFE