Colombia halts FARC negotiator visits

Bogota (AFP) –


President Juan Manuel Santos has suspended visits to Colombia by FARC negotiators saying they breached an agreement that allowed them in to explain to their fighters agreements reached during peace talks in Cuba.

Santos initiated the ban last year after guerrilla leaders met with local residents and participated in public events during their last visit, despite restrictions on such activities.

"This was an unacceptable violation," chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said, speaking from the Narino presidential palace in Bogota.

He said the troublesome visit had taken place in Conejo, an isolated village held by the FARC in La Guarija department near the Venezuelan border.

The visit by Ivan Marquez, Jesus Santrich and Joaquin Gomez was the fifth thus far to Colombia by FARC leaders negotiating in Havana, de la Calle said.

"A fundamental rule of this agreement (on visits) is that they do not make politics with arms," de la Calle added.

He said the government had asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to help the group return to Havana "as soon as possible."

In images posted on social media and released by local media, the FARC leaders appeared in civilian clothing accompanied by armed fighters in uniform.

"We will finally obtain peace!" one fighter said from the podium, with locals crowded around waiving white flags and Colombian ones.

Jorge Restrepo of the CERAC conflict analysis resource center said the "crisis" caused by the FARC leaders' visit was a sign that the peace process had "lost credibility."

Colombia's biggest rebel force, the now 7,000-strong FARC, has been fighting the government in Bogota for five decades.

The Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government have said they aim to sign a peace deal by March 23.

Once a virtual failed state, Colombia is increasingly seen as a pivotal player in Latin America and one of the region's most dynamic and democratic countries.