HAVANA — Colombia's FARC rebel group said it will seek a ceasefire in Latin America's oldest armed conflict when peace talks begin next month with the government, which has ruled out a truce.
"We will propose a ceasefire as soon as we sit down at the negotiating table," said Mauricio Jaramillo, a spokesman and top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He said talks will start October 8.
But experts warn there may be scant chance of a ceasefire by the government, at least initially.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who announced the opening of the talks this week, repeated his pledge that the army would keep up or even increase pressure on the rebels during the peace negotiations.
The government "did not accept any ceasefire, or to lower its guard in terms of security," he said.
The talks are due to begin in Oslo and then move to Havana, the first attempt in a decade to reach a negotiated end to an armed conflict that began in 1964 with the founding of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The rebel army draws its roots from anger among landless peasants in a country with a huge divide between rich and poor.
The last peace talks, in 2002, fell apart when the government concluded that the guerrillas were regrouping in a vast demilitarized zone it created and where the talks were held.
That is why Santos has stressed time and again that he does not want to "repeat the mistakes of the past."
There probably would not be a ceasefire until the peace process nears its conclusion, said Ariel Avila, an expert on the Colombian conflict at the New Rainbow peace foundation.
"Of course, there is the risk that the process will derail if there is a major attack or a car bombing. But it is also possible that hostilities will diminish," Avila said in Bogota.
But some in Colombia and in the international community, including the United Nations, argue that a peace process needs a ceasefire and will stand a better chance of succeeding if there is one.
Avila said that if a ceasefire is declared, it will not be any time soon because Santos is halfway through a four-year term, the country will soon shift into electoral mode and critics such as his political mentor Alvaro Uribe are already calling him soft on "terrorists."
In Havana, Jaramillo named the FARC negotiating team, and declined to say what the FARC would do if one of its commanders were killed in battle while peace talks were under way.
"It is complicated to go into suppositions and speculation. We are at war, and we are aware of the need to end the conflict," he said.
Jaramillo said the rebels also would demand that Simon Trinidad, a FARC leader imprisoned in the United States, be allowed to join the negotiations.
Trinidad, whose real name is Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda, was arrested in Quito in November 2004 and extradited to the United States, where he is serving a 60-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering.
In response to the FARC's demand on Palmera, Santos said in a radio interview: "The process must be realistic. It's an important word. There are things that are possible and others that are not."
Jaramillo denied the FARC was involved in drug trafficking and also declared that the guerrilla group was no longer in the business of kidnapping.
In Bogota, dozens of relatives of people who have either been kidnapped or vanished demanded that they have seats for four representatives at the peace negotiating table.
"Someone who has suffered (through this situation) must be present," Maria Elena Galvez, whose father was likely kidnapped in 1991, told AFP. Galvez has had no news of her father since his disappearance.
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