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Colombia's peace talks reach the hardest point, no certainty the final hurdles can be crossed
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the start of official peace talks with FARC rebels in a televised address back in 2012, he said the 'stars were aligned'.
Since then Santos has been cautiously optimistic about reaching a peace accord, and has reiterated that Colombia has never before had such a good chance to end a 50-year-old war that has killed more than 200,000 civilians and uprooted six million.
His optimism has not been shared by many Colombians, who after three previous attempts by the government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to sign a peace deal, are wary of predicting success this time.
But as peace talks in Havana slowly advance, both sides have taken conciliatory steps in recent months, raising hopes that the negotiations have reached a point of no return.
The first gesture of goodwill came in December 2014 when FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire for an indefinite period, which has so far largely been honoured, local analysts say.
Then last month, the rebels announced they would stop recruiting fighters under 17 years old, the first time the FARC had publicly admitted to using child soldiers.
The two sides then agreed to work together to clear landmines planted by the rebels across the country.
The United States, a close ally of Colombia, also named a special envoy for the peace talks, a move welcomed by both sides and a sign that talks have advanced far enough for Washington to take a more active role.
"We consider it a necessity, considering the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia's political, economic and social life," the FARC said, following the appointment of the U.S. special envoy last month.
Colombian generals have also held face-to-face meetings with rebel commanders in Havana, the first time serving officers have sat down with members of the FARC to talk peace.
Santos also announced earlier this month that the armed forces would halt aerial bombing raids against FARC hideouts and jungle camps, saying this could be extended if the FARC continued its ceasefire.
All these moves are signs that the rebels are willing to push talks to a successful end, and that the government is keen to make gestures of goodwill, experts say.
So far, negotiators have reached agreement on three of the five points on their peace agenda - land reform, the FARC's participation in political life, and the drug trade.
The two sides have never before agreed on so many issues.
They are now discussing victims' rights, including how best to honour and compensate victims, and how to establish what happened to those who disappeared or were killed.
As is often the case with peace talks, the toughest questions are usually left until last.
The crux of the peace talks could be finding a balance between victims' and society's thirst for justice for the abuses committed by both the FARC and state security forces, and the rebels' refusal to accept punishment.
Most Colombians want - and expect - FARC commanders to serve time behind bars and don't want them to become senators or congressman in the future.
Yet lead FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez has said the guerrillas would serve 'zero' jail time.
Jan Egeland, a veteran peace mediator who took part in Colombia's last peace talks in the 1990s and now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, says you can't take anything for granted at the negotiating table.
"The one thing I've learnt from taking part in peace processes is that there is never a point of no return," he once told me.
"Something always can go wrong, and when you least expect it."
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce)
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