HAVANA: Colombia's leftist FARC rebels on Monday declared a unilateral two-month ceasefire as they began talks in Cuba with the Bogota government on ending Latin America's longest-running insurgency.
The two sides were in Havana to resume negotiations formally launched last month in Norway, and both expressed confidence that an end to the decades-long conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives is within reach.
The talks represent the first attempt at a negotiated peace in 10 years.
“The leadership has ordered that all military operations against government forces come to a halt,” the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) delegation, Ivan Marquez, said upon arrival at the talks venue.
Marquez said the ceasefire, which would take effect at midnight (0500 GMT) Tuesday and last through January 20, was “another example of our desire to create a political environment conducive to the progress of the talks.”
He added that the rebel move was a “solid contribution to strengthening the climate of understanding needed for the parties starting talks to reach the result desired by all Colombians.”
Negotiators for the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made no statement as they arrived at the convention center in the Cuban capital. Reporters were not allowed inside the venue as the talks began.
Both Santos and chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle have repeatedly said that government forces will maintain counter-insurgency operations during the peace talks with the FARC.
De la Calle, a former Colombian vice president, has nevertheless said he believes this is “the defining moment” to reach a peace deal with the FARC, as both sides have agreed talks “must end with a final agreement on the conflict.”
Before leaving Bogota, he said this round of talks would likely last about 10 days, at which time a start date for the next round would be agreed.
The Santos administration wants to build “a stable peace,” he told reporters as he boarded a plane for Havana Sunday, adding that “the FARC would be turned into a legal political party.”
Negotiations to reach a final deal will likely last “months, not years,” de la Calle said.
The FARC, Latin America's largest rebel group, founded in 1964 and believed to have some 9,200 armed fighters, took up arms almost 50 years ago to protest the concentration of land ownership in Colombia.
Little has changed over the years, as more than half of the country's largest properties are controlled by one percent of the population, according to a 2011 UN report.
There are however signs that the guerrillas may be ready for a truce after a long string of setbacks.
Several top commanders have been captured or killed in recent years as the group has suffered a string of military defeats and its ranks have dropped to half the number of fighters compared to the FARC's 1990s peak.
The negotiations, which began on Monday, had initially been scheduled to start on November 15 but were delayed to clarify the role of civilian representatives.
The talks, the fourth attempt at peace between the government and the FARC, will focus on a five-point agenda that includes the thorny issue of rural development.
Both sides must also agree on a mechanism to end hostilities, incorporate the rebels in political life, curb drug trafficking, and compensate victims of abuses committed by guerrillas and government troops.
According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of people have died and four million have been driven from their homes in the conflict, which also involves a smaller guerrilla army and right-wing paramilitary groups.