Picking up the pace of peace talks between Colombia, rebels

In an apparent concession to rebels with whom he is holding stalled peace negotiations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has agreed to scale down military activities of his armed forces on the condition that the insurgents speed up the pace of the talks in coming months.

In a press conference at the presidential palace here Monday morning, chief government negotiator Humberto De La Calle said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had agreed to “change the methodology” of the talks to quicken the process.

The announcements come as Colombians have become increasingly skeptical of a peace deal after several rebel attacks last month on police and energy installations. The lack of progress has also dimmed expectations. At the inauguration of talks in November 2012, Santos promised that peace talks would take ”months not years.”

“As the president has said many times, our patience is running out,” De La Calle said Monday.

The process has been stuck since May 2014 on the issue of transitional justice - whether FARC commanders will be subject to trial and possible imprisonment for alleged crimes against humanity. The rebels have said from the start of talks being held in Havana that they will not agree to do jail time after hostilities end.

Last month’s wave of attacks by the FARC, which left several police and soldiers dead and two principal rivers polluted by oil spills, was widely seen as a tactic to apply pressure on the government to agree to a bilateral cease fire.

“I can't ignore, because I feel it as well, the frustration, the discouragement, the indignation produced in Colombians to see the FARC assassinating soldiers and police and blowing up pipelines and electricity towers, [thereby] affecting the poor and producing irreparable environmental damage,” Santos said in his address to the nation Sunday night.

Santos also said he would evaluate the status of the talks in November and at that point decide whether to continue or walk away from the peace table.

“We have to accelerate the talks to end the conflict as soon as possible,” Santos said. “In four months from now, depending on whether the FARC complies, I will decide on whether we continue with the process or not.”

Questioned by reporters at the Monday press conference, De La Calle insisted that the military shift was not a cease-fire but a “downscaling” of operations to build trust that peace is possible. A formal cease-fire will occur if and when peace negotiations are successful and monitoring arrangements have been agreed to, he said.

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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