FARC Guerrillas and Colombian President Reach Breakthrough in Peace Talks - NBC New York
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FARC Guerrillas and Colombian President Reach Breakthrough in Peace Talks

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    In this Sept. 21, 2015 photo, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos talks in Quito, Ecuador. Santos has announced a surprise trip Wednesday to Cuba for a key meeting with government peace negotiators trying to wrap up talks aimed at ending the country’s long-running conflict.

    Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leftist guerrilla commanders are announcing an important breakthrough in peace talks that sets the stage to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.

    In a joint statement, Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia said Wednesday they have overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to compensate victims and punish belligerents for human rights abuses.

    Rebels that confess their crimes, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive up to 8 years of restrictions on their liberty in restricted areas still be to determined.

    Santos flew to Havana, where talks have been going on for three years, to make the announcement alongside his longtime nemeses.

    The apparent breakthrough comes after Pope Francis, in a visit to the communist-led island this week, warned the two sides that they didn't have the right to fail in their best chance at peace in decades.

    As part of talks in Cuba stretching over more than two years, both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for guerrillas who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking. Further cementing expectations of a deal, the rebel movement known as the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in July and has been working with Colombia's military on a program to remove tens of thousands of rebel-planted land mines.

    But amid the slow, but steady progress, one issue seemed almost insurmountable: How to compensate victims and punish FARC commanders for human rights abuses in light of international conventions Colombia has signed and almost unanimous public rejection of the rebels.

    The FARC, whose troops have thinned to an estimated 6,400 from a peak of 21,000 in 2002, have long insisted they haven't committed any crimes and aren't abandoning the battlefield only to end up in jail. They say that they would only consent to prison time if leaders of Colombia's military, which has a litany of war crimes to its name, and the nation's political elite are locked up as well.

    On Tuesday, Santos dispatched his negotiating team to Cuba almost a week ahead of the next scheduled round of talks and then further fueled speculation of a breakthrough by announcing on Twitter he would stop in Havana en route to New York, where he's scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

    It's the first official visit by Santos to the negotiations. He was expected to be joined at an event with the FARC's top military commander Rodrigo Londono.

    The FARC peace delegation said on Twitter that the rebel leader, better known by his alias Timochenko, is already in Havana and sent images of him dressed in a sweat suit arriving on a chartered flight to Havana and relaxing in a leather sofa chair with rebel negotiators.

    "Some people on both sides will be unhappy. Some want more peace, others want more justice," Santos said in a speech Tuesday, hinting at the advances. "Not everyone in the world will be content, but I*m sure in the long run we*ll be much better off."

    Two people close to the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to distract from Wednesday's announcement, said that a road map to conclude talks will also be unveiled.

    The government has gone to great lengths to insist that its framework for so-called transitional justice doesn't represent impunity for guerrilla crimes such as the kidnapping of civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers and heavy involvement in cocaine trafficking, for which the FARC's top leadership has been indicted in the U.S.

    But even before details have become known, conservative critics lashed out at what they said was excessive lenience on the part of the government.

    "Santos, it's not peace that's near, it's the surrender to the FARC and the tyranny of Venezuela," former President Alvaro Uribe, whose military offensive last decade winnowed the FARC's ranks and pushed its leaders to the negotiating table, said in a message on Twitter. "Without jail time for the commanders, there will be a deal in Havana but also a recipe for more violence in Colombia."

    With the sticky issue of transitional justice apparently resolved, negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for rebels to demobilize, hand over their weapons and provide reparations to their victims. Santos has also promised he'll give Colombians the chance to ratify any deal, which must also clear the nation's Congress.

    Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP Writers Jacobo Garcia, Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report from Bogota.