BOGOTA — The leader of Colombia's leftist FARC rebels confirmed Monday they were ready to sit down at the peace negotiating table in a bid to end Latin America's last armed conflict, now nearly 50 years old.
"We come to the table for dialogue without rancor, or arrogance," FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, also known as "Timochenko," said in a video message carried on the website of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
It was the first comment from Latin America's oldest guerrilla army since President Juan Manuel Santos announced a week ago that preliminary talks were under way ahead of a formal, full-fledged peace process.
Timochenko gave no specific details. The video part of his message included footage of young fighters singing a rap song in favor of dialogue with the government.
Colombian press reports said full-blown peace talks are due to begin in October, first in Norway and then continuing in Cuba.
The discussions would likely address issues such as distributing land to peasant farmers, rebels' links to drug trafficking and reincorporating guerrilla leaders into everyday life -- a sensitive point, as many of them have been convicted of crimes against humanity.
Santos said a week ago that Bogota would not cease military operations against the FARC or reduce the presence of security forces nationwide while contacts were under way.
Seven rebels were killed in clashes on Monday.
Without referring to the latest FARC statement, the president said: "With much hope, we the people of Colombia are going to see if we can end this conflict, which has caused us so much pain."
He warned against "repeating the mistakes of the past" -- a reference to a vast demilitarized zone set up for the FARC during the last talks, in 2002, that allegedly just helped them regroup.
But some in Colombia say a ceasefire is indeed necessary as a confidence-building measure for any peace talks to yield fruit.
Political scientist Fernando Giraldo said Timochenko's word choice was cause for hope after decades of fighting and suffering.
"The FARC have suffered many tough blows, and to say that they are going into the dialogue not seeking revenge reflects a good attitude, although later at the negotiating table there could be many difficulties," Giraldo told AFP.
Founded in 1964, the FARC are Colombia's oldest rebel group and draw their roots from anger among landless peasants in a country with a gaping divide between rich and poor.
The FARC now have about 9,200 fighters, down by half over the past decade after a series of military successes by the army, and have been driven largely into rural areas.
Colombia has seen peace talks come and go before, three times since the 1980s. The last attempt was in 2002.
Colombian media said Sunday that the preliminary talks took place in Venezuela and Havana, and produced a six-point negotiating agenda.
Santos is halfway through a four year-term. When announcing the fledgling talks in a speech to the nation on August 27, he said peace was his priority.
"Since the day my government took office, I have respected my constitutional obligation to seek peace, and we have undertaken exploratory talks with the FARC, to seek an end to the conflict," Santos said.