Colombian rebels, government to resume peace talks
From staff and wire reports
LOS POZOS, Colombia -- Colombia's biggest rebel group agreed Friday to resume formal peace talks as early as next Wednesday with the government to end their 37-year war.
The resumption of talks was announced at a joint news conference between President Andres Pastrana and Manuel Marulanda, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), following two days of talks.
Leaving his safety largely in the hands of the enemy, Pastrana flew into rebel territory Thursday with only a light security detail.
After the first day of talks, he spent the night on an army base that was abandoned by troops when the territory was turned over to the rebels.
It is the third time Pastrana has met the 69-year-old guerrilla chief since he gave the FARC control of the demilitarized zone in 1998. The rebels are accused of using the enclave to build strength, hold civilians for ransom and tend a flourishing cocaine business.
The never-easy peace process slipped into crisis last November when the 17,000-member FARC -- Colombia's largest rebel group -- walked out of formal negotiations, accusing Pastrana of taking insufficient action against right-wing paramilitary death squads.
The president needs to leave the meeting with some sort of gesture from Marulanda that will allow him to build flagging public support in the peace process.
One of the issues is the release of some of the 500-odd military prisoners being held by the FARC.
Marulanda wants to talk about the paramilitaries and Pastrana's "Plan Colombia" anti-cocaine offensive, which is backed by $1 billion in U.S. military aid.
The FARC opposes Plan Colombia, saying the aid is being used to fight them. The army says the FARC is itself involved in and financed by illegal drugs.
Pastrana wants the rebels to collaborate in joint crop substitution and eradication programs in coca cultivating areas.
The FARC says it wants to deal with social and economic inequalities through agrarian reform. It would like to share power with the government to implement needed social change and to do away with institutional corruption.
But most urgent is the need to address the issue of prisoners, as both sides have taken thousands captive.
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