- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 8, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (AP) - Former President Alvaro Uribe sought secret talks during his second term with Colombia’s main leftist rebel group in Switzerland, and the guerrillas even reached out to the U.S. Embassy, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

But it appears none of the described contacts made headway toward resolving Colombia’s nearly half century-old civil conflict, which claims several thousand lives annually.

Uribe left office in August after badly crippling the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with a withering military campaign and refused steadfastly to accept their demand for a demilitarized zone as a condition for talks.

Uribe always maintained he would not engage in serious dialogue with the FARC until the rebels stop kidnapping civilians, free all their captives _ they currently hold 22 soldiers and police _ and halt their practice of laying land mines that kill indiscriminately.

The contacts, including Switzerland’s role as a mediator, were not previously known to the public before the cables were released Wednesday by WikiLeaks.

Reacting via Twitter, Uribe said his government “accepted many international initiatives” to open dialogue with the rebels. He promised to later detail them on his personal website.

In the cables, in particular one dated Feb. 6 that discussed a three-hour meeting Uribe had with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the hard-line former Colombian president is described as skeptical about contacts with the FARC leading to a negotiated peace as long as the rebels have refuge in neighboring Venezuela and “a fountain of wealth” from cocaine trafficking.

A Feb. 11 dispatch mentions that a meeting has been arranged between Colombian government and FARC representatives in Switzerland but offers no more details.

In April, the FARC said in a communique that it had rejected any dialogue with the Uribe government abroad. It said it was responding to a March 5 letter from Uribe’s peace commissioner, Frank Pearl. The government refused to comment at the time.

The FARC’s contact with the U.S. Embassy came on May 14, 2009, when a Colombian politician representing Pablo Catatumbo, a member of the FARC’s seven-man ruling secretariat, met with the embassy’s political counselor, according to a cable sent 12 days later.

The Colombia politician, whose name is removed from the cable, “stressed that he did not bring a message from the FARC” for the U.S. government but rather “wanted to establish a ‘relationship’ with the Embassy that could prove useful in the future. He said Catatumbo is convinced that (U.S. government) participation in any eventual peace process with the (government of Colombia) would be key to success.”

Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was defense minister for most of Uribe’s second four-year term.

Santos has made it clear that his attitude toward peace talks remains the same as Uribe’s.

The FARC said in a communique published today on the sympathetic ANNCOL website that it would free five captives in the near future once the Santos government has offered security guarantees.

Since January of 2008, it has freed a total of 14 hostages in what Uribe complained were “publicity-seeking stunts.”


Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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