Colombia’s government and leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have appeared together in public in Norway to launch peace talks aimed at ending a 50-year conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The head of the delegations, Humberto De la Calle for Colombia and Ivan Marquez for the rebels, appeared on Thursday on the same podium without shaking hands at a hotel in the small town of Hurdal where the two sides were to make a joint declaration launching the talks.
Earlier, both parties were whisked through a VIP section of Oslo airport, with the media completely shut out, for planned meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.
This is the latest attempt to negotiate peace with the drug-funded rebels since they were formed back in 1964. Past discussions ended in shambles, even strengthening the guerrillas’ ability to attack civilian and military targets.
If the preliminary talks in Norway go smoothly, further negotiations addressing the precise details of a deal are scheduled later in Havana.
Together with Cuba, Norway is playing the role of facilitator in the peace process that seeks to put an end to a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives in the past 50 years.
No to end fighting
The five-point discussions are likely to be thorny as they focus on the drug trade, victim rights, land ownership in rural areas, FARC participation in politics and how to end the war.
Despite the talks, Colombian troops have continued their offensive against the rebels and guerrillas have stepped up attacks in recent days against energy and mining installations.
Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, has refused to call a ceasefire until a peace accord is reached.
“There is no ceasefire while these tentative first steps are being taken but there’s a sense that people might be ready for compromise, although the language has occasionally been very assertive,” Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Oslo, said.
“Millions have been displaced, tens of thousands have been killed and the war has been financed by cocaine.
Colombia is the world’s biggest producer and the war is being financed by the illegal drug trade.
“FARC will still want to push their own political agenda and this has given them the platform to do just that.”
Our correspondent quoted FARC rebel leader Ivan Marques as saying “there are political, economic and social issues that caused this conflict and that they need to be addressed if the conflict is to be resolved.
“Marques said ”We’re not the guerrilla warriors the media portrays us to be’.”
As well as being a personal victory for Santos, a successful end to the talks would increase the Andean nation’s weight in investment portfolios after years of being considered one of the world’s most dangerous places to visit and do business.
Direct foreign investment this year is expected to reach approximately $17bn, a record, and well above the $2bn it attracted in 2002. Back then, the FARC was at its very strongest and able to easily launch attacks on the capital, Bogota.
Still, peace with the FARC will by no means end violence in Colombia as drug trafficking and criminal gangs – many born out of the demobilisation of right-wing armed groups - may continue to operate across the nation.
The negotiators are due to speak to reporters on Thursday, though it is not yet clear whether the two sides will appear together at the press conference.
Rumours of talks
Elected in a landslide in 2010 promising to maintain the tough stance against FARC adopted by his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Santos has been criticised by opponents for a perceived deterioration in security.
Santos’ approval ratings have recovered since the peace talks were announced.
Rumours of talks with the FARC, Latin America’s largest armed group, swirled since Santos assumed office and took early steps to instigate the process with reforms giving land back to displaced peasants and paying reparations to FARC victims.
While most Colombians approve of peace talks, polls show that more than half would oppose any deal allowing FARC leaders to participate in politics or giving them an amnesty for crimes committed in the conflict.
“The government wants to push things along. They will go to Havana to start talking about the substantive issues,” Al Jazeera’s Friend said.
“Here in Oslo they wanted to come up with an agenda. Now they have agreed on the outline of the talks. In Havana they will get down to the nitty-gritty and the real, hard negotiations.
“I don’t think these negotiations are going to come to a swift conclusion.”