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Colombian president meeting rival in bid to save peace deal

Published 05/10/2016

Newspapers headlines reading Colombia Said No reflect the shock result of the peace deal referendum (AP)
Newspapers headlines reading Colombia Said No reflect the shock result of the peace deal referendum (AP)

President Juan Manuel Santos is moving quickly on two fronts to save a peace deal narrowly rejected by Colombian voters, holding talks in Cuba with left-wing rebels while inviting his chief opponent for a rare face-to-face meeting.

Government officials led by chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle met their counterparts from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC - on Tuesday in Cuba's capital to check on the rebels' willingness to reopen negotiations.

After a day of consultations with business leaders and evangelical Christians, who campaigned hard against the accord, Mr Santos said he was extending the ceasefire with the Farc until October 31 to give peace a chance.

"Time is very important. We can't prolong this process and this dialogue for a long time because we*re in a grey zone, a sort of limbo, that is risky and can wash away the entire process," Mr Santos said.

Any renegotiation would probably lead to tougher terms for the rebels than the ones in the accord reached in August and it is not clear the rebels are ready to return to the drawing board.

Shortly after Mr Santos announced he was extending the ceasefire, rebel leader Timochenko tweeted: "And after that the war continues?"

Ever since the deal was narrowly rejected on Sunday in a referendum, Farc leaders have made clear they have no intention of resuming warfare but also insisted the vote has no legal implications and the deal signed last month in front of several heads of state is final.

If Mr Santos needs the Farc's support to prevent the peace deal from collapsing, both parties need the help of the man who led the campaign against the accord - former president Alvaro Uribe.

Mr Santos was defence minister under Mr Uribe when they joined forces with the US to beat back the rebels, and Mr Uribe helped elect him president. But the two angrily split shortly after Mr Santos took office.

On Tuesday, however, the two men spoke by phone and set up a meeting for Wednesday at the presidential palace in what is believed to be their first encounter in years. Neither the government nor Mr Uribe said what would be on the agenda.

Both men, at least publicly, have tried to project a conciliatory tone since voters rejected the accord, unlike the public feuding and trading of insults to which Colombians have grown accustomed in recent times.

Before the referendum, polls had indicated the Yes vote was winning by an almost two-to-one margin.

But Mr Uribe tapped into widespread resentment of the rebels. Specifically, he argued that provisions for keeping rebels who committed serious war crimes from going to jail and instead awarding them with seats in congress insulted victims and set a bad example that criminal gangs would seize on.

The electoral upset boosted the former president's political standing to the point that analysts speculate a weakened Mr Santos can only rescue the accord by inviting Mr Uribe to directly negotiate a solution to the impasse with the Farc.

On Tuesday, Mr Uribe told Blu Radio he was not interested in assuming responsibilities that belonged exclusively to the government, but reiterated his willingness to provide input on a way forward.


Showing what is at stake if Mr Santos' gamble fails, another commander, known by his alias Pastor Alape, said on Twitter that all Farc troops "should move to secure positions, to avoid provocations".

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From Belfast Telegraph