OSLO, Norway (AP) — Colombian government and rebel negotiators met Wednesday for a first set of talks at a secret venue outside Oslo aimed at ending the South American nation’s naggingly complex, nearly half-century-old conflict.
The negotiations are expected to last months, if they succeed. Rooted in land tenure grievances, Colombia’s internal conflict dates to the height of the Cold War and involves the Western Hemisphere’s last surviving guerrilla army.
Representatives from both sides met after their delegations arrived Wednesday and discussed technical matters such as a schedule for the full-fledged negotiations that will continue in Havana, said a Colombian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Separate news conferences by the government and the peasant-based leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are scheduled for Thursday after a first session of formal talks.
It is not clear how long the Oslo talks will last or when the negotiations will move to Cuba, as the parties have agreed, but expectations were low for any substantive movement in Norway.
An agreement signed in August capping six months of secret preliminary talks in Havana specified that the Oslo session would occur in the first half of October.
But the start was delayed by logistics, including the suspension of international arrest warrants for rebel leaders and the FARC’s last-minute insistence on adding a 34-year-old polyglot Dutch woman, Tanja Nijmeijer, to their delegation. A U.S. warrant for Nijmeijer’s arrest on hostage-taking and terrorism charges has not been lifted and she is expected to join the FARC delegation only after talks shift to Cuba.
The United States and European Union consider the FARC an international terrorist organization.
One issue under discussion Wednesday was the role of delegates from Norway and Venezuela, which are accompanying the talks, said the Colombian official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Venezuela has been accused of providing refuge to the FARC over the past decade under socialist President Hugo Chavez, while the United States provided billions in military assistance and training that helped Colombia’s government seriously weaken the rebels.
“A lot is at stake here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Thousands have been killed. Thousands have also been kidnapped,” Jan Egeland, a Norwegian who was a special U.N. envoy to Colombia during failed 1999-2002 peace talks, said in an interview Wednesday.
“This is a very cruel conflict where both the FARC, the government army and paramilitary forces that have been fighting alongside with the army have a lot of blood on their hands,” he added.
Colombia remains Latin America’s most problematic nation in human rights violations, internal displacement and drug trafficking. Cocaine has been the chief source of financing not just for the FARC but also for its far-right militias known as paramilitaries.
But Egeland, who is now director of Human Rights Watch for Europe, said he is more optimistic now because “I think the parties after 50 years of conflict see that there is no military solution, there is only a negotiated solution to the bitter conflict.”
There are “enormous challenges,” however, he added, and they include what to do about combatants from both sides, specifically senior commanders, who have committed war crimes. Human Rights Watch has come out firmly against blanket amnesties or pardons for those accused of war crimes.
Colombia’s chief government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said before departing Bogota on Tuesday that his delegation “sincerely believes the conditions exist for an effective and favorable result.”
President Juan Manuel Santos has refused to grant the rebels a cease-fire during the talks and has placed a former armed forces chief and ex-police director on his negotiating team. Men in uniform were not on the 1999-2002 negotiation team.
Santos has said he expects results in a matter of months or he’ll pull the plug.
The agenda set in Havana calls for agrarian reform, full political rights for the rebels and guerrilla disarmament once an agreement is signed. The FARC would also get out of the cocaine trade.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
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