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Colombia: Violence flares in lead-up to new round of FARC peace talks

Recent kidnappings and intensified fighting have increased public skepticism about the Colombian government and FARC rebel peace talks. Today marks a new round of negotiations in Havana.

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“Public opinion needs to see fighting diminishing” in order for citizens to buy into the peace process, says Kristian Herbolzheimer, director of the Colombia program at Conciliation Resources, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to peace building.

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But the fact that recent events and tensions did not upset the agenda in Havana shows a commitment by both sides to see the process through to a peace deal, says Mr. Herbolzheimer. “If this is the biggest crisis the talks have faced until now, it is a good sign, because it wasn’t really a crisis,” he says.

However it has given fodder to critics of the peace process, such as former President Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Uribe, whose two terms in government (2002-10) were characterized by an all-out offensive against the FARC, claims that his successor and former defense minister has gone soft against “terrorists.”  After the FARC attack on the police station Saturday, Uribe posted a photo of the debris on Twitter with the message: “Another attack by terrorists and the government in impunity talks with the leaders.”

'Kicking each other under the table'

The FARC have proposed a renewed bilateral cease-fire while the peace talks proceed, but the government has rejected the idea.

“While from a humanitarian perspective [a cease-fire] makes sense, militarily it could give the FARC some breathing space,” says Herbolzheimer, a risk the government cannot afford to take either politically or militarily. Such a truce would also be complicated to enforce and could be very easy to sabotage by critics of the process who could commit violent acts to make it look as if one side or the other violated the truce, he added.

Eventually, however, both sides will have to find ways to de-escalate the fighting even without a full cease-fire, says Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, a retired Army colonel. “They can’t keep kicking each other under the table and keep smiling above it,” Mr. Velásquez says.

Herbolzheimer agrees, suggesting that the two sides could take unilateral measures to show Colombians the benefits of the process while building confidence between the two negotiating teams. For example, the FARC could commit to limiting actions to nonurban areas and the government could pledge not to go after top leaders, although such decisions would probably not be made public. “In the medium term, fighting and talking will become incompatible,” he says.

Editor's note: The story previously misstated Mr. Velásquez's Army ranking.

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