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Colombia, rebel group agree to formal peace talks

CARACAS, Venezuela – Colombia and the nation’s largest guerrilla group will begin formal peace talks the first half of October, as the two sides say they are determined to put an end to a half-century conflict that has killed tens of thousands and once made this Andean nation a regional pariah.

On Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos said that after six months of informal and largely secret talks in Cuba, government officials and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had hammered out a roadmap that could lead to peace.

“I have the conviction that we are facing the real opportunity of finishing our armed internal conflict once and for all,” Santos said.

In a video response to Santos, the FARC’s top commander, Rodrigo Londono Echeverry, known as Timochenko, said both sides had hammered out the “General Agreement to End the Conflict” on Aug. 27.

“The way out is not war but civilized dialogue,” Timochenko said in the video, which was broadcast in Cuba and posted on YouTube.

The bearded commander also lamented the breakdown of peace talks 10 years ago and the ensuing military confrontation.

One of Santos’ largest challenges is overcoming the specter of those failed talks. Initiated under the Andres Pastrana administration in 1998, Colombia eventually demilitarized an area the size of Switzerland as a concession to the FARC. When the talks broke down in 2002, many blamed the detente for allowing the FARC to build their strength and wreak havoc for the next decade.

On Tuesday, Santos reassured the nation that he’d learned from the past. This time there will be no territorial concessions and the government will keep up the military pressure on the guerrilla group even as it pursues talks, he said.