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Colombia Approves Law On Peace Talks With Rebels

Colombia's Congress on late Thursday approved a new law that sets the guideline for future peace talks with the country's Leftist rebel groups, marking a distinct change from the policies of its previous governments.

The the so-called Legal Framework for Peace was approved by the Congress 63 votes to three. It calls for soft sentences for members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel groups, provided a peace deal is reached and the rebels confess their crimes and compensate victims.

The new law, supported by an overwhelming majority of Senators, does not apply to criminals involved with drug cartels or former paramilitary groups. It also bars rebels involved in human rights abuses from public office. Nevertheless, its critics say the new legislation is too lenient.

The latest move signals a notable shift in policy from that of previous Colombian governments, which had steadfastly refused to engage in negotiations with the Leftist rebels. However, current President Juan Manuel Santos had earlier expressed willingness to engage in peace negotiations with the rebels if they renounced violence, surrendered arms and released hostages.

FARC has been fighting the Colombian government for almost five decades in what is said to be Latin America's longest-running insurgency. The rebels seek to impose a Leftist regime in the country, which they believe would redistribute land more equitably among its impoverished population.

FARC has been accused in the past of using money generated from smuggling cocaine to fund their activities. Its fighters still carry out attacks on Colombian security forces and other targets despite tough security measures enforced by former President Alvaro Uribe, who completed his term in office last August.

The strong anti-militant policies and related military operations initiated by Uribe since he first took office in 2002 had put the rebel group on the defensive. But there has been an escalation in FARC attacks in recent months despite a series of successes for the Colombian government in its campaign against the outlaws in recent years.

Although Santos pledged soon after assuming office in August 2010 to crackdown hard on the rebel groups, he recently said peace negotiations would be possible if the rebels renounced violence and released all hostages.

In an effort to show its commitment to future peace talks with the government, FARC recently released the last remaining ten security personnel held hostage and pledged to abandon kidnappings for money. But the rebel group is still said to be holding hundreds of civilian hostages. It still launches frequent attacks on security targets amid calls for peace talks.

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