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Colombia's leader backs away from deadline for peace deal with FARC

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In a radio interview Monday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos backed away from a self-imposed deadline of November for completing a peace accord that is being negotiated in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Negotiators, who are now attending their 12th session, which ends Saturday, have reached agreement on just one of six major points -- the section on agrarian reform -- that will make up a final deal. It took the better part of seven months to hammer that out.

“If in November we haven’t finished entirely, we’ll see where we are, and if we have to prolong the talks a couple of months, we’ll extend them," Santos told Caracol Radio in Bogota. “Deadlines in these processes are totally counterproductive.”

Many Colombians are wary of FARC stall tactics, which were on display during previous peace negotiations from 1999 to 2002. When Santos announced last year that the government and insurgents had agreed to new talks, he assured Colombians that the process would last “months, not years.”

That goal now seems unrealistic, given that negotiations appear to have bogged down over the second major issue: how to guarantee political participation by the rebels.

The rebels have said they want a constitutional convention to lay out their political role, whereas the government says the two sides should agree on a framework and then put it to a nationwide referendum along with the rest of  an eventual accord.

November is significant because that's when Santos is expected to formally announce his bid for reelection, kicking off campaigning for the presidential election in May. 

The government had previously said it wanted a deal before then, not only to hold the rebels to account but also so the negotiations weren’t sensationalized as part of the  “24-hour news cycle” of the campaign,  said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

In the radio interview, Santos refused to speculate on how many congressional seats the FARC might be offered as part of a guaranteed political role, saying that would be decided at the negotiating table.

He deflected concerns among some Colombians about giving the FARC amnesty or seats in Congress after decades of killings, kidnappings and terror, saying he believed a majority would vote for such measures as part of a comprehensive peace deal. 

“When you take all the elements [of an accord] and you add what peace would mean to the country … the people at that point will take the plunge,” Santos said.

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