Colombia chides rebels to stick to peace talks agenda

Colombia's government on Thursday rejected calls by the leftist FARC guerrillas to demilitarize rural areas, saying that and other issues were beyond the scope of ongoing peace talks.

"The government is not going to start negotiating on new topics," peace talks representative Humberto De la Calle told reporters, as the two sides prepared to take an 11-day break.

"I'm referring, for example, to the issue raised by the FARC on 'demilitarizing the rural areas.' This issue is not part of the discussions," said De la Calle as he prepared to return to Bogota.

Other subjects that the rebels have raised, but which the government considers out-of-bounds, De La Calle said, include slapping more taxes on the country's energy and mining sector and renegotiating Colombia's foreign debt.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has been holding talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Cuba since November in a bid to end a conflict that began as a peasant revolt against inequality in the 1960s.

De la Calle said that in the last days Pope Francis, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, and the US ambassador in Colombia Michael McKinley have all expressed support for the peace talks.

Rural development and land ownership are the first of five agenda items on the itinerary, and De La Calle said negotiations on that critical issue were winding down.

The government negotiator said the talks are "making progress," although there remain "various disagreement to sort out."

"We will come back to the talks on April 2, with the hope of being able finally to finish up that subject (land reform) and move onto the second," he said.

FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez said in a separate press conference that negotiations were "advancing slowly but steadily."

"We still need to solve some areas of disagreement," the FARC official said.

The FARC rebels this week made a call for policies that would bring about social "justice."

The guerrillas also proposed "demilitarizing" the Colombian state, and called as well for the payment of "reparations" for Colombian land workers.

In an indication of the progress of the talks, the two sides issued a joint statement on Thursday asking the United Nations to organize a popular forum to address the issue of FARC's evolution into a political party.

The talks are the first attempt in more than a decade to reach a negotiated truce between the Colombian government and the FARC, Latin American's largest insurgency. Three previous attempts failed.

Santos expressed optimism this week that an accord could be reached by the end of the year.