Q&A: Colombia peace talks

Pablo Catatumbo (l) and Frank Pearl shake hands in Havana on 26 May 2013 Farc negotiator Pablo Catatumbo (left) and government representative Frank Pearl said agreement on land reform was a "significant step"

The formal talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) aim to end to the country's civil conflict. It is the first attempt to reach a deal in a decade, and huge obstacles remain. But for some, it is the best chance for peace in 48 years.

How did the current process start?

President Juan Manuel Santos has said initial informal discussions with the Farc started shortly after he took office in August 2010. Those contacts led to the start of direct exploratory talks with the rebels' representatives in the Cuban capital, Havana, in February 2012.

These discussions concluded on 26 August with the signing of an agreement that set out the principles and procedures for the forthcoming negotiations.

Does the agreement include a ceasefire?

No. Mr Santos has said he made it clear from the beginning that military operations against the Farc will continue until a final deal has been reached. This is one of the main differences with previous peace processes, which many believe were used by the rebels mainly to regroup and strengthen.

At the same time, the decision to continue with the military operations has also tested the Farc's resolve. The rebels' decision to continue contacts even after government forces killed Alfonso Cano, the rebel leader who started the negotiations, in November 2011, has been presented as proof of their willingness to secure a deal.

How will the dialogue continue?

The talks began in Oslo and then moved to Havana. The governments of Norway and Cuba are acting as guarantors, and the governments of Venezuela and Chile also support the talks.

There is no deadline for the negotiations to be concluded, but President Santos set a deadline of November 2013 for significant agreement to be reached. The Farc, however, has said it is ready to sit at the negotiating table for as long as it takes.

What will be discussed?

The agreement covers six issues: land reform; the political participation, disarmament of the rebels, drug trafficking, the rights of the victims, and the implementation of the peace deal.

Six months into the talks, on 26 May, negotiators reached an agreement on land reform, which they said would result in a "radical transformation of rural Colombia".

The deal, which has been hailed as a significant step in the peace negotiations, provides for the creation of a land bank to reallocate land, especially that which was seized illegally during the decades of conflict.

The agenda has been described as realistic compared with previous peace processes when the Farc demanded to discuss radical changes to Colombia's political and economic model.

However, with negotiators taking half a year to reach agreement on the first of six major issues, there are fears they will not be able to conclude a deal in "months, rather than years".

So how strong is the Farc?

The Farc is Colombia's largest guerrilla group and one of the world's richest rebel movements, allegedly due in large part to drug-trafficking and illegal gold mining. But according to the Colombian military there are now some 8,000 fighters, down from 16,000 in 2001.

The rebels, who a decade ago controlled nearly a third of Colombian territory, now mostly operate in remote rural areas or through hit-and-run attacks. Several Farc commanders have been killed or captured in the last few years. But the rebels are by no means defeated and have demonstrated great capacity to adapt.

"The government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and (the) Farc appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else," the International Crisis Group said in September.

What about Colombian public opinion?

Opinion polls suggest a large majority back dialogue, with just over half saying they are optimistic about the outcome. In April, tens of thousands of Colombians showed their support for the negotiation at peace marches in major cities throughout the country.

But a significant number also share the views of key opponents of the negotiations. These include former president Alvaro Uribe, who opposes the idea of an amnesty or allowing the rebels to enter politics.

What happened at previous talks?

The last attempt dates from 1999-2002. A condition for talks was the creation of a demilitarised zone in southern Colombia. The Farc was accused of using this safe haven to import arms, export drugs and build up its military machine.

The talks came to an abrupt end after the rebels hijacked a plane in February 2002 and kidnapped Senator Jorge Gechem. Three days later, the rebels also seized presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

The peace process was widely seen as a complete failure and long made the idea of talking to the rebels anathema to many Colombians.

So, no success stories?

President Virgilio Barco negotiated the demobilisation of the M-19 guerrilla group in March 1990. And despite the assassination of its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in April that year, the M-19 party came third in the presidential elections.

Many former M-19 rebels also helped to draft the current constitution. A former M-19 member, Gustavo Petro, is mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, considered the country's second most important elected post.

What about other armed groups in Colombia?

Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), announced it wanted to enter into peace talks shortly after the negotiations between the government and the Farc began in November.

At the time, President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed the ELN's move as "just words". He said the guerrilla would have to free all of its hostages and stop its attacks on civilians and the security forces before the government would engage in negotiations.

On 28 August 2013, a day after the rebels released a Canadian mining executive they had held hostage, Mr Santos said he was now "ready to talk" to the guerrilla.

The president said he wanted to start the dialogue with the ELN, which is estimated to have some 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, "as soon as possible, to see if we can end the conflict once and for all".

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