Colombian rebel groups agree election ceasefire
HAVANA/BOGOTÁ — Colombia’s government and FARC rebels yesterday reached an agreement to eliminate the illegal drugs trade, the third item on a five-point agenda in peace talks to end a half-century of war, hours after the Marxist group called a week-long ceasefire.
The advance in talks nine days ahead of the first round of voting in the presidential election is likely to give President Juan Manuel Santos a boost to his reelection bid. The race is shaping up to be the tightest in two decades.
Discussions on how to eliminate the production of cocaine from Colombia were closed, a source from Colombia’s Office of High Commissioner for Peace told reporters on condition of anonymity. Sergio Jaramillo, who heads the office, serves as a government negotiator at the peace talks in Havana.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced it would stop all attacks from May 20 to May 28, a period that includes the May 25 election. The second biggest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), also said it would call a ceasefire during the period.
Presidential and local elections have historically been marred by leftist rebel attacks nationwide as the groups seek to intimidate and influence voters. The government usually sends thousands of additional troops to patrol during the period.
“We are ordering all of our units to cease any offensive military action against the armed forces or the economic infrastructure as of 0000 hours on Tuesday, May 20, until 2400 hours on Wednesday, May 28,” Pablo Catabumbo, a FARC leader, told reporters in Havana.
Santos, who until this week was the frontrunner, faces a tough election battle with right-wing rival Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who is closing the gap in the first round and seen beating the incumbent in a June 15 runoff, according to two recent surveys.
Peace with ELN?
Positive developments in the talks could affect the election’s outcome, as many voters may perceive there is a spirit of cooperation at the negotiating table and that progress is being made under Santos’ leadership.
Santos, a centre-right politician who succeeded former president Álvaro Uribe, has sought to sell the idea that without his re-election, peace talks could collapse and Colombia would remain at war indefinitely.
The last time an election appeared to be so close was in 1994 when Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper beat Andrés Pastrana of the Conservative Party.
Zuluaga, a key Uribe ally, has strongly condemned the current negotiations and promised to suspend them until the rebels call a unilateral ceasefire and accept jail time.
FARC and government negotiators have been engaged in talks since November 2012 to find a peaceful end to a war that has killed more than 200,000 people.
With the deal on the drugs trade, the two sides have now reached accord on three items. Agricultural reform and the rebels’ participation in politics were agreed last year, while reparations for war victims and the mechanics of ending the conflict remain the key outstanding issues.
The ELN is not participating in the talks but many believe Santos will announce peace talks with the group before the second round.
The UN office in Colombia welcomed the decision of the two rebel groups and said the “measure will save the suffering of Colombians and facilitate the normal development of the electoral process.”
Experts stressed the unique news that the country’s two guerrilla forces will make a joint truce for the first time in history.
“I’m sure that this is the first time something like this has happened. It’s a goodwill gesture. Hopefully the Armed Forces respect this unilateral decision,” said Carlos Lozano, editor of the weekly newspaper Voz del Partido Comunista Colombiano.
The former presidential candidate and senator-elect Horacio Serpa was surprised by the move given the fact the guerrillas “always do this separately. Who can not be pleased that for 15 days there will be no murders in Colombia?” he said.
Both Lozano and Serpa stressed that the Colombian government is overdue talks with the ELN, which has already sent sign that it would be willing to dialogue.
In Colombia reaction to the rebel’s announcement arrived in the midst of electoral fever in the country.
The Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, did not seem pleased with the news. “We have learned that every time there is a ceasefire it only means that these armed groups get stronger,” he said
Herald with AP