HAVANA — The Colombian government reached a major de-escalation agreement yesterday with leftist FARC guerrillas, agreeing for the first time to reduce anti-rebel operations in the decades-long armed conflict, diplomats in Havana said.
The move marks a significant step in stop-start peace talks in the Cuban capital between the two sides that began in November 2012 but have been hampered in recent months by an uptick in violence.
On Wednesday, FARC said it had agreed to a one-month unilateral cease-fire starting July 20, and the government yesterday committed to curtailing its efforts against guerrillas for the first time since peace talks began.
"The national government, from July 20, will launch a process of de-escalation of military action, in response to the suspension of offensive actions by the FARC," said a joint statement read by Cuban and Norwegian diplomats, who have been mediating the talks.
Both sides hailed the reset of the talks.
"This is undoubtedly a strong, promising, and hopeful re-launch of the dialogue process," said chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez.
His government counterpart, Humberto de la Calle said the agreement shows "the opportunity to end the conflict is alive."
The FARC will decide within the month if it will extend its cease-fire while both parties will revisit the agreement in four months, mediators and spokesmen said.
Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos hailed the deal as an "important step" towards a peace agreement, but warned his troops were ready to fight if the deal is violated.
"With these new advances, we finally see a clear light at the end of the tunnel, this fills me with confidence and hope. We will achieve peace, which has been elusive," he said in an official address.
"But let it be understood: Our armed forces are ready for a gradual de-escalation, but if the FARC does not fulfil its promise, we will respond with determination and force."
Colombia's civil strife dates back to 1964 and has drawn in left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs, killing more than 220,000 people and uprooting as many as six million.
The landmark agreement seeks to improve negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest rebel force, after talks showed signs of stalling.
The government and FARC "decided to make every effort to reach without delay the signing of a final agreement," said Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Benitez.
"In particular (the parties have decided) to agree without delay on the terms of the cease-fire, an end of hostilities and surrender of weapons including monitoring and a verification system," Benitez said.
The government and FARC have also asked for a UN delegate and representative from the Union of South American Nations to help start discussions on monitoring the end of the half-century conflict.
Talks in Havana have so far resulted in agreements on three topics of a six-point agenda, including ending drug trafficking that has fuelled the conflict.
Cuba and Norway are acting as so-called "guarantor" countries in the peace talks.
A December FARC unilateral cease-fire had fallen apart and clashes resumed in mid-April, following an ambush by the rebels that left 11 soldiers dead.
Each side blames the other for the escalation.
The fighters claim that government forces stepped up attacks on rebel camps during its cease-fire.
Since the truce ended, about 30 rebels have been killed in army operations and recent surveys show the public is increasingly wary about the peace process.
In recent months, there has been a spike in rebel attacks on infrastructure and military positions leading to numerous deaths, injuries and damages.
The FARC confirmed Friday it was holding captive a lieutenant wounded in a clash with government forces. — AFP