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Disarmed, Colombia's FARC seek political rebirth
By Rodrigo Almonacid and Florence Panoussian
Bogota (AFP) Aug 27, 2017

Colombia govt, rebel ELN eye ceasefire before pope visit
Quito (AFP) Aug 28, 2017 - The Colombian government and the country's last active rebel force, the ELN, said Monday they hope to agree on a ceasefire before Pope Francis's visit to the nation next week.

"We are determined to rise to the occasion of the Holy Father's visit and take a big step towards peace by sounding out the possibility of agreeing a temporary bilateral ceasefire," said Juan Camilo Restrepo, the government's chief negotiator at peace talks.

He spoke during an appearance by delegates from both sides in the Ecuadoran capital Quito, where they are holding peace negotiations.

National Liberation Army (ELN) negotiator Pablo Beltran added that he hoped the ceasefire would be secured Friday.

Pope Francis visits Colombia from September 6 to 10.

Colombia's biggest rebel force, the FARC, disarmed last month under a peace deal with the government to end more than half a century of civil conflict.

President Juan Manuel Santos now wants a deal with the ELN to seal a "complete peace."

Disarmed fighters from Colombia's leftist FARC rebel force sought political rebirth on Sunday as they launched steps to transform into a party and seek elected office after ending a half-century armed struggle.

About 1,200 delegates from the freshly demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attended the opening of a founding congress to choose their political representatives ahead of next year's general elections.

"At this event we are transforming the FARC into a new, exclusively political organization," said the force's commander Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko.

He said the group will advocate "a democratic political regime that guarantees peace and social justice, respects human rights and guarantees economic development for all of us who live in Colombia."

Former FARC fighters were bussed in from around the country to join the congress -- such as Jose Edwin Arias, 36.

Arias said he lost both of his hands in an accident while handling explosives during the conflict.

"We are going to launch our plan for society, without weapons," he said.

- What's in a name -

Having completed disarmament last month, the FARC will meet mostly behind closed doors this week to choose a name for the party and election candidates.

Another former commander of the force, Ivan Marquez, said he expected the movement to call itself the Alternative Revolutionary Force of Colombia.

However, Timochenko canvassed opinion on Twitter and most respondents favored the name "New Colombia."

Conflict analyst Frederic Masse of Bogota's Externado University said the debate reflected a "dilemma" in the movement.

"Some want to keep the word 'revolutionary' while others want to change that to show that this is a new start," Masse said.

- Seeking votes -

Regardless of how many votes they may win, the peace deal signed with the government last year guarantees the new party five seats in each of the two legislative chambers for two terms.

"We aspire hopefully to achieve an even greater representation," former guerrilla commander Carlos Antonio Lozada told AFP.

Timochenko has ruled out the new party fielding a presidential candidate in 2018. But he said it will support a candidate who guarantees peace.

Center-right President Juan Manuel Santos hailed Sunday's gathering.

"Who would have thought a few years ago that this would be possible," he said. "What we have to do now is reconcile."

- 'Liberal democracy' -

The FARC formed as a communist movement in 1964 from a peasant uprising for rural land rights.

Now after 53 years of attacks and kidnappings, it faces a struggle for political acceptance.

"For the FARC, political action is not just electoral... it is about winning hearts more than votes," said Jesus Santrich, a senior FARC supervisor in the peace process.

Voters narrowly rejected the peace deal in a referendum last year. Santos and the FARC tweaked it and the government pushed it through congress.

"The FARC will face a number of challenges. The first is not to betray their support base. The second is to enlarge their electorate," said Masse.

"The third is to show that they are capable of doing politics differently and not letting themselves get sucked into traditional patronage politics."

- History of violence -

The Colombian conflict drew in various rebel forces, paramilitary groups and state forces.

It left some 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.

The government has opened peace talks with the last active group, the 1,500-strong National Liberation Army (ELN), in the hope of sealing what Santos calls a "complete peace."

FARC leaders and officials warn that remnants of right-wing paramilitary groups are still carrying out attacks in the conflict zones.

"We are afraid that our leaders will be assassinated," said one FARC delegate at Sunday's event, 53-year-old Efren Romana.

The congress in Bogota runs until Thursday. On Friday, the party plans an official launch ceremony.

Lebanon army declares pause in offensive against IS on Syria border
Beirut (AFP) Aug 27, 2017
Lebanon's army on Sunday announced a pause in its offensive against Islamic State group militants along the border with Syria in exchange for information on troops taken hostage in 2014. The armed forces launched their campaign against IS militants entrenched in the mountainous Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa areas on Lebanon's eastern border on August 19. "The army command announces ... read more

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