Colombia rebels begin indefinite, unilateral ceasefire

Colombia rebels begin indefinite, unilateral ceasefire
BOGOTA: Leftist rebels in Colombia began a unilateral ceasefire Saturday hailed as a key step in peace negotiations -- but uncertainty marred the truce, which the guerrillas threatened to break if attacked by the army.

"An indefinite, unilateral ceasefire from the FARC has begun. It´s a positive gesture that goes in the right direction," said President Juan Manuel Santos, who consistently refused to reciprocate.

"I hope there will be other gestures that would permit a de-escalation of the conflict and an acceleration in results from negotiations," the president added.

In a message published shortly before the ceasefire took effect just after midnight, the FARC welcomed Santos´ remarks on the truce, and asked him "not to stand in the way of the people´s desire to know their country without the roar of bombs and machine guns."

Under the ceasefire, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) says its fighters will only engage in hostilities if they come under attack first.

The FARC had declared Christmas ceasefires in each of the past two years, but this is the first without an expiration date.

Santos, who has made the peace talks his top political priority, has rejected any bilateral ceasefire, saying the guerrillas could take advantage of a truce to regroup, dragging out the conflict.

On the eve of the ceasefire Friday, FARC fighters ambushed a patrol in western Colombia, killing five soldiers.

The day-before attack had a familiar ring for Colombians.

The rebels had also staged attacks just before their 2012 and 2013 ceasefires, showing their strength before putting down their guns.

But officials said the attack didn´t threaten the peace talks aiming to end Latin America´s longest-running conflict, which over the past 50 years has killed some 220,000 people and displaced 5.3 million more.

The talks only just re-started after being suspended when the FARC captured an army general who headed an anti-rebel task force in the jungle-covered region of Choco, their highest-ranking captive ever.

The FARC released the general on November 30 in order to revive the stalled talks.