Closed-door talks between the Colombia government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are underway in a bid to end almost half a century of armed conflict.
Thursday’s negotiations in Oslo are the first direct talks in more than a decade and the Colombian government voicing cautious optimism about a possible deal.
Both parties, whisked through a VIP section of Oslo airport, were taken to an undisclosed location around midday with the media completely shut out for planned meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, the Norwegian foreign ministry said.
This is the latest attempt to negotiate peace with the drug-funded rebels since they 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 Oslo 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.
‘Lower tone of fighting’
The five-point discussions will likely 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.
Meanwhile, opposition Senator Wilson Arias said: “Negotiating while conflict goes on is very dangerous and so I ask both sides to be very cautious with their actions.”
“They both should lower the tone of the fighting,” he told Reuters news agency.
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 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.
Elected in a landslide in 2010 promising to maintain the tough stance against insurgents adopted by his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Santos has been slammed by opponents for a perceived deterioration in security.
Santos’ approval ratings have recovered since the peace talks were announced.
Rumors of talks with the FARC, Latin America’s largest armed group, swirled since Santos assumed office and took early steps to kick-start 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.