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Colombia's FARC rebels deny 'crisis' in peace talks

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 4 Feb 2013 16:17 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Peace talks tense as violence escalates

* FARC to free 3 captured members of armed forces

* Rebels weakened but still formidable

By Helen Murphy

BOGOTA, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Colombia's FARC rebels on Monday said peace talks with the government were not in crisis and were moving along steadily even amid a recent escalation in the conflict.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement that "mal intentioned" speculation that talks in Cuba had reached crisis levels were "virtual creations" of the media and right-wing elements seeking to hobble the process.

"Conversations at the table are moving ahead in a normal mode, no one has stood up or threatened to formally leave," the FARC's leadership said.

"On the contrary, both sides are working to find an approximation in the agrarian issue, with an urgency to reach significant accords that represent advances toward ending the conflict and reaching peace."

In a tense atmosphere, FARC and government negotiators sought to find agreement last week on rural development - the first part of a five-point agenda to seek an end to a half-century of conflict. The FARC has said it wants a better distribution of land in Colombia, which it says is concentrated in the hands of a few.

The two sides traded barbs as fighting intensified in Colombia - killing scores of guerrillas and security personnel - and the rebels last week seized three members of the armed forces and three oil workers.

U.S.-backed strikes against the FARC in the past decade have severely weakened the rebels and limited their ability to attack the country's economic drivers, helping attract billions of dollars in foreign investment.

But the increased violence demonstrates that while weakened, the FARC is still a formidable force. The kidnappings angered Colombians who hoped that the peace process could bring an end to fears of traveling and working in remote parts of the Andean nation.

The rebels on Saturday said they would release the two police patrolmen and soldier in a move that could help ease the tension in Havana and rebuild confidence in the talks.

The oil workers have already been freed.

President Juan Manuel Santos has said he wants the accord agreed on by November, but the FARC has rejected a timetable and pledged to remain at the table until the conflict is resolved.

The FARC vowed last year to abandon kidnapping for ransom, but has said it will continue taking members of the armed forces, which it considers prisoners of war.

Over its history, the drug-funded group has held dozens of police officers, soldiers and politicians hostage, including French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, seized in 2002, and three Americans taken a year later.

Betancourt and the U.S.-defense contractors were rescued by the military in 2008, when Santos was defense minister. (Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Bill Trott)

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