BOGOTA: Colombia's FARC rebel leader said on Monday the group would join peace talks with the government “without hatred or arrogance” in its first response to President Juan Manuel Santos' announcement of imminent negotiations.
The prospect of talks, likely to take place in Norway and Cuba, has raised Colombians' hopes of an end to five decades of bloodshed - though past governments' failures to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency show the path is not easy.
In a video posted on the Internet on Monday that swung from serious to mocking, a group of uniformed FARC rebels acknowledged the possible negotiations by singing and playing the bongos - but they also ridiculed Santos.
The group's leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his war alias as Timochenko, is edited onto the introduction of the song, telling the rebels: “We join the negotiating table without hatred or arrogance.”
In office since 2010, the conservative Santos last week announced his government had taken part in “exploratory talks”
with the leftist FARC - which stands for Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia - that may lead to formal negotiations.
He said the nation's second-biggest rebel group, the National Liberation Army or ELN, could also be involved.
In Monday's video, the FARC men and women sang, danced and played the guitar in an unidentified clearing, surrounded by trees and fence posts. Some were dressed in olive-green uniform and others in black T-shirts and berets depicting Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
“I'm off to Havana, this time to talk to he who accuses us of lying about peace, that bourgeois who tries but can't crush us,” they sang in the video, which can be seen at: http://afpnoticias.blogspot.com/2012/09/llegamos-la-mesa-de-dialogos-sin.html.
“That pedantic Chucky Santos who finds the need to ask (former Cuban leader) Fidel Castro to help with the FARC,” they added, in reference to the murderous doll Chucky in the movie franchise “Child's Play.”
Around Colombia, there has been cautious optimism since Santos' announcement, with many praising it as a bold move that would help bring further economic prosperity to the Andean nation and free rural areas from the fear of constant attacks.
Some, though, have dissented from that general mood. Most notably, former President Alvaro Uribe and his backers have slammed the move as pandering to “terrorists.”
Timochenko's message was received positively by analysts, who recall the FARC as arrogant in the previous attempt at peace that took place in the southern area known as El Caguan and ended in failure in 2002.
“This is a very important message and dramatically different to the stance in Caguan,” Caracol Radio cited Angela Maria Robledo, member of Congress' peace commission as saying.
Carlos Lozano, a member of peace advocacy group Colombians for Peace, said the message shows a “clear commitment by the FARC”.
While it is not known if the entire seven-member leadership of the FARC is in agreement with the peace talks, the so-called secretariat takes decisions by majority.
Still, an intelligence source told Reuters that there is discontent among some of the commanders in the powerful southern areas of the group's structure, where much of the cocaine production takes place.
At the mid-point of his four-year term, Santos may reveal more details in the coming days. Another source told Reuters talks are likely to start in Norway then move to Cuba.
Santos, who has said military operations would continue while discussions are under way, has agreed that FARC leaders would not be extradited to a second nation to stand trial, according to the source who asked not to be identified.
As evidence of ongoing military operations, seven FARC fighters were killed on Monday and another five captured during an air raid in central Meta province, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said.
“This is an important message that shows the will of the armed forces to work tirelessly against any organization that attacks the Colombian people,” Pinzon told reporters.
The drug-funded rebels have been hit hard in recent years by a U.S.-backed Colombian army offensive that has weakened their ranks and hobbled their communication system.
Still, the FARC is able to launch repeated attacks on economic infrastructure and military targets.
Santos had been facing severe criticism over a perception that security was deteriorating amid repeated FARC attacks on oil and mining installations.
While extremely risky, a successful peace agreement with the FARC would secure a place in history for Santos as the only leader to end a war that has killed tens of thousands over the years and sullied the South American nation's reputation.
Santos' approval rating, which slipped to 48 percent in June, moved up again to 51 percent last week in the latest survey by Gallup conducted amid rumors talks were starting.