Colombia’s government and leftist FARC rebels were set to formally launch peace talks in Norway on Thursday aimed at ending almost five decades of conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Oslo, and later Havana, is hosting the first direct talks between the two sides in 10 years.
The government and the rebels were to hold a press conference at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) in a hotel in Hurdal, a small town north of Oslo, to officially launch the negotiations.
The two sides met at a secret location on Wednesday and on Thursday morning to discuss technical and logistical issues and a Colombian official told AFP the meetings had been “respectful and cordial”.
The discussions are expected to focus on five main areas: land reform, the rebels’ future role in political life, a definitive end of hostilities, fighting the illegal drug trade and the situation of the victims.
Land reform was at the heart of a peasant uprising in the 1960s that saw the formation of FARC, and access to farmland remains an important issue in a country where half of the population lives in poverty.
The Colombian government estimates that some 600,000 people have been killed by armed groups and security forces in the country, and that 3.7 million Colombians have been displaced in the conflict.
It has voiced cautious optimism about the chances of reaching a deal with the rebels.
“We do not want to create false expectations, but we do believe there are structural elements that allow us to harbour hope that we will see good news for Colombia,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told AFP before leaving Bogota.
Latin America’s largest rebel group, founded in 1964 and with 9,200 armed fighters now, FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- may be ready for a truce after a long string of setbacks.
In recent years, it has suffered the capture and killings of some of its top leaders, and the depletion of its ranks to half what they were at their peak in the 1990s.
Preparations for the Oslo talks have been cloaked in secrecy, with few details seeping out from either the delegations or host Norway about the fourth official attempt to resolve Colombia’s insurgency.
After their start in Norway, the talks will move to the Cuban capital next week.
The United States, a long-time ally of the Colombian government in its fight against drug trafficking, a major source of funding for the rebels, on Wednesday voiced “full support” for the peace process.
The Americans are not involved but are being updated regularly, said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected a ceasefire before a final agreement is reached, but the issue is expected to be raised by FARC.
The rebels sparked last-minute controversy by revealing that Dutch national Tanja Nijmeijer, a FARC member for the past decade, would be among the delegates at the peace talks in Havana.
Allowing the rebels’ only known European recruit in the delegation is a controversial move, since it is seen by the government side as an attempt by FARC to curry favour in Europe and bolster its international image.
Nijmeijer, 34, first travelled to Colombia to study philology and teach English. Affected by abuses and inequality she witnessed, she joined FARC in 2002 and has since risen to the senior ranks.
FARC is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.
Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe said Wednesday he was “concerned” about the talks, saying he didn’t understand why a country would “negotiate with terrorists”.