Posted: Oct 15, 2012 7:29 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2012 7:29 PM
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) The commander of Colombia's main rebel group says its delegation at peace talks set to begin Wednesday in Oslo will include as a spokeswoman a young Dutch combatant who joined the insurgents nearly a decade ago.
Timoleon Jimenez, better known as Timochenko, said in pre-recorded remarks broadcast Monday by several Colombian media outlets that the rebel delegation was heading to Norway "with the emotion of being one step closer and deeper toward dialogue."
The talks mark the fourth attempt since the early 1980s to end a nearly half-century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. An agenda set during six months of secret talks in Havana calls for agrarian reform, full political rights for the rebels and guerrilla disarmament once an agreement is signed.
A news conference is planned for Wednesday to formally mark the start of the talks.
Timochenko said "unforeseen delays" had postponed the talks' launch by a few days. He blamed the delay on bureaucracy in the government's case and heavy rains in the case of his Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"In the one case, it was rising rivers, while the other was affected by the state's pachydermic attitude in making decisions," said Timochenko. "But we're one our way and that's what's important."
The FARC leader said 34-year-old Tanja Nijmeijer would be among rebel spokespeople in Oslo, where the talks are to be held at an undisclosed location before moving later in October to Cuba.
Nijmeijer gained fame when she complained of disillusionment in a diary found in 2007, four years after she joined the FARC. In 2010, however, the Dutch woman appeared in a video distributed by the FARC pledging allegiance to the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major insurgency.
Since the last round of peace negotiations were held a decade ago, a U.S.-backed military buildup has badly battered the rebels. At about 9,000 fighters, they are roughly half their 2002 strength. The military has killed three of their most senior leaders since 2008.
Timochenko, 53, complained that the government had not provided guarantees that all delegates the FARC named to the upcoming talks would be permitted to attend. He named, in particular, Ricardo Palmera, the best-known of the rebels' five chief negotiators.
Palmera, 62, is serving a 60-year prison sentence in a maximum-security U.S. prison, convicted of conspiring to kidnap three U.S. military contractors who were captured by the FARC in 2003 when their surveillance plane crashed after mechanical failure.
He is held in solitary confinement at the so-called Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
His lawyer, Oscar Silva, told The Associated Press that the U.S. government bars him from receiving visitors and that he can only speak with Palmera, with no opportunity for confidential discussing, during hearings for a Colombian trial in which Palmera participates by videoconference.
In addition to the U.S. sentence, Palmera has been convicted in Colombia of the kidnapping of the former mayor of the northeastern regional capital of Valledupar, where he was a well-heeled banker before joining the rebels.
Colombia's chief prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre, says Palmera could be permitted to participate in the talks via teleconference.
He told The Associated Press on Monday, however, that the Colombian government had not yet asked the U.S. government for that accommodation.
Timochenko called Palmera's participation "decisive" given his expertise in agrarian economics.
The FARC is classified as an international terror group by the U.S. State Department. All but one member of its six-member ruling Secretariat are wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges, with $5 million rewards out for each.
Colombia's government made no public statement about the impending talks, though one official told the AP on Monday morning that its delegation had not yet arrived in the Norwegian capital.
The official said that Wednesday's news conference would mark the talks' official start.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.